Tag Archives: Screenwriting

You Don’t Know What You’re Writing About Until the End!

Supposedly you have gotten into this writing dodge because you’re a storyteller. You have something gnawing inside you, burning, chewing at your guts that you can’t wait to get out into the world. To share with others. To make people feel, strongly. Something! Anything! What story do you cease to exist if you don’t tell? Why?!

Writing teachers will say, “Figure out your theme, tape it above your computer and write about that.” As if it were anywhere near that easy!

I think the opposite is true, especially if you’re telling a tale that is “about” something. Something, hopefully, that has profound meaning for you and thereby, everyone. If you do a piece of writing the correct way, it will be to some degree a journey of exploration and discovery, perhaps self-discovery. That journey must be free form, fluid, and wide open to change.

In seeming contradiction to that, I also advocate use of an outline. In Your Screenplay Sucks!, I talked about how important it is to delay writing pages until you have pounded your outline to death.

The earlier it is in your writing career, the tighter the outline should be before you write actual screenplay pages. If your outline is on the money, your overall writing time will be shorter. If you really think about what you’re doing before you write FADE IN:, you’ll waste less time in revision mode.

Even then, you still can’t know what it is you’re really writing about until you have a draft.

Deeper into your writing career, I advocate for a more free-form version of the outline, precisely what Robert Olen Butler tells you to do in his magnificent book From Where You Dream.

https://www.amazon.com/Where-You-Dream-Process-Writing/dp/0802142575

Presumably, as you’re working on your script, your characters are alive and malleable. You may think of something halfway through the script that never occurred to you when you started. That’s fine! Change and improvement are wonderful. Foolish changes, sad to say, will send you off in the wrong direction. But, as this is a process, you can always figure out a way to get back on the path.

As you write pages with action description and dialogue and character and all that stuff, the journey your hero is on as well as the journey you are on will begin to deviate from whatever you thought that journey was going to be when you set out to write the outline, followed by pages. Things happen. Better ideas! Something changes on page 5 that will affect page 50. This stuff is normal. Do not reject change in favor of your “carved in stone” outline.

As you churn forward, writing, do not change the pages behind you (rule of thumb, nothing is law except, “Don’t be boring.”) but drop your “changes” ideas in a file and when you’re done with the first pass, go back and perform surgery on your patient.

Only as you move toward the end of the draft can you look back and see from whence you came and truly begin to understand what your story is about. Begin to understand why you are telling this story. Begin to understand what your character’s real problem is. Begin to understand what your problem is.

“I have a problem. I make a movie about it. It’s not a problem anymore.”

supposedly Andy Warhol

At the beginning of the journey, you can certainly think you know what the hero’s problem is, but you may be wrong about even something as fundamental as that. You certainly may not know what the solution to the problem is. Not at the beginning. You find this along the way. Hey, the writing teachers are right when they say it’s a journey! Your first pass is not your tenth draft! Embrace that you will fail for a while and don’t sweat it. Press on and feel good about it.

You may decide at the beginning that your movie is about a man in a divorce. You may change your mind partway through when you discover the main character is really his wife. The reason you’re telling the story can shift and that moment, that epiphany about why you’re really here, is fun! When you gasp and yell, “So that’s why I’m writing this!”, that’s a mind-blowingly wonderful feeling.

I don’t think you can get that feeling unless you stay open to change through the writing process. At last, perhaps suddenly, the truth will be revealed to you and you go back into the story and fix all the things you need to repair that will lead to the point you now know you’re trying to make.

The point you can only understand how to make after you’ve done a LOT of writing.

Once you figure out what your story is about, it may only be a matter of going back to the beginning to do some gentle spadework to alter this or that or these five scenes to help point the reader in the direction the story needs to go. Or, maybe it takes dynamite and a crane, a ton of heavy lifting, to blow it up and start all over again. Once you know what you really, really are there for, rewriting becomes much easier. And on target.

Scenes that don’t fit the new “theme” shout, “Hey, dummy! I don’t belong here! Get rid of me!” They can’t do that at the beginning of the writing process because they are locked into whatever your original thoughts were. Once all the players (your story and your characters and you) know why you’re really at the party, then you can roll up your sleeves and get some really good work done.

So, don’t sweat it if, up front, you don’t have a clue why the heck you’re sitting there writing.

If you have any examples of this, please send them to me and I will post them. Have you figured out much later in the game than you had first anticipated what your story was about?

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Filed under Criticism, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Who’s Your FAVORITE Bad Guy?!

Working on Your Screenplay STILL Sucks!. Writing about Opponents… wondering who you think are the finest Bad Guys in the history of movies or TV…

Who do you love to hate?
Who’s the most complex?
Who’s the most unusual?
Who do you find endlessly fascinating?
Who was the biggest problem for the hero?
Who do you enjoy watching again and again?

I’m sure you’ve got favorites I’ve not considered… hence the question!

Thank you for letting me know.

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Filed under character, Good Writing, Screenwriting

Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

In Praise of Typewriters

IBM anti writers block gizmoI recently paid one of the few IBM trained typewriter repair people in my lovely hometown $125 to bring my slightly gummy Correcting Selectric II (the Mt. Olympus of typing devices) back into smooth running order. It was worth it.

For one thing, writing thank you notes is a pleasure because I can bang them out on the noisy typewriter and it makes me feel like I’m doing something. I can’t know how it feels to receive such a thank you, but perhaps a bit different from an email that took all of 11 seconds to write and send. Plus, I have fancypants engraved stationery I love using.

Though I have no problem with writer’s block, a lot of people do. It can be crippling. It can wreck your life.

If you read Your Screenplay Sucks!, and you should have… at least three times… you will be familiar with my IBM Correcting Selectric II. The typewriter gets a mention because of the importance of spell check. As I grew up writing on that typewriter, I got really good at proofreading because, once you pulled the paper out of the typewriter, there was no way to correct the mistake and you had to go back and retype the whole damn page.

I can imagine droves of Millennials reading that sentence and committing suicide.

Such is one benefit of a typewriter.

Another benefit a typewriter taught me, which is also wired into my DNA, is that you can’t go back. March forward or die. The typewriter sits there waiting patiently, motor humming like a throaty purring cat… There’s nothing for you to do but ponder the page and think about what you’re going to do next. Because of my typewriter’s inability to go backwards, to allow me to fix anything at the top of the page or the page before or 20 pages before, the typewriter taught me to keep writing.

This simple idea is lost on people who began their writing efforts with the computer. The wonderfulness of a computer makes it possible for you to go back and rewrite something… as soon as you write it! This is hooded Death staring you down, eyes burning red, whispering for you to fail.

If you don’t have Samson’s iron will, going back is a death sentence to your ability to write.

Stopping kills the mindset needed to get into a character or a creative space that allows you to tell a story, relentlessly living in that creative “zone.” If anything dislodges you from the zone, you are lost. At least temporarily. Some people: permanently. “Dislodge” is perhaps the wrong word. That suggests that a granite foundation exists to creative work and you are simply knocked off it.

The word “dislodge” should be replaced with “brushed” or “flicked.” The slightest distraction can flick you out the headspace, that precious zone you endeavor to stay in so you can write. Once you are out of it, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get back in.

When you write on a computer and misspell a word, a wiggly red line appears under it. POW! Out of the creative headspace. Now you correct that word. Then, all of a sudden, you look at the top of the page and see something else that isn’t exactly perfect. So you correct it in an endeavor to make it perfect. But it’s not perfect. So now you’re depressed because you can’t achieve perfection and you try to correct it again. Then you think of something two pages back that might need a little more thought. Due to the nature of the computer, you slide up a page or two and start to work on that piece of junk you wrote. Forget whatever the hell it was you were trying to write when you misspelled the original word. Now, instead of swimming forward in your wonderful writing zone, you are thrashing in an acid filled morass of depressing quicksand that will peel off your skin and leave you reduced to a sobbing carcass.

Very hard to get writing done when you are a sobbing carcass.

The main cause of writer’s block is fear. Generally, this fear is “fear it won’t be perfect.”

No worries as long as you don’t try to make it perfect in the first draft. If you know you’re going to fix it later, it’s all right if it’s not perfect now. Sometime in the future you can make it as close to perfect as possible. Not now. Not while you’re staring at that word with the red line under it telling you you’re stupid and talentless. And maybe ugly.

Enter the old fashioned typewriter.

If you write on a typewriter, you can’t go back and fix what you wrote. You have to keep moving forward and the pages will pile up and the first draft will be all right, but not perfect, but who cares? It will exist. You will get work done. Keep moving. Fix it later.

If you find yourself always going back and rewriting while you are in the process of doing your first draft, seriously consider a typewriter. It may help a lot.

My suggestion: an IBM correcting Selectric II, for around $300. Or the IBM Wheelwriter. They still make ribbons for them. Buy from a typewriter repair person or a store. Take out the correcting tape and you can’t fix anything!

Or, visit swintec.com.  They still make new ones!

If you want a manual typewriter, get one. Tom Hanks likes ’em. They are more expensive cause they’re cooler. And, wonderfully, since they don’t have any correcting feature at all, with a manual, there’s no way to go back. None.

With a typewriter, you can only go forward. For someone with a crippling need to perfect their first draft, a typewriter seems a Godsend. For one thing, it’s faster than writing with pen and paper. The idea that, for someone with horrible writer’s block, being unable to go backwards seems an exhilarating and liberating experience.

Because few people writing today have written on a typewriter, the idea of constant forward motion and staying in the writing zone has been lost. I hope not forever.

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

CHINATOWN’s opening scenes… cutting fat…

t doesn’tBeen wanting to do this for a long time.

It’s difficult for beginning writers to understand the value of cutting, much less the value of cutting really good stuff they took the time and trouble to write. The more you see how a scene improves by slicing away fat, the happier you’ll be to pull out your flensing knife.

The first draft of CHINATOWN is different from the one you’ve probably read.

It opens on Hollis Mulwray, Chief Engineer for the Department of Water and Power, driving to the dried up L.A. River.  THAT’s different!  Conversely, the movie opens on a scene between Jake Gittes, the P.I. hero, and client, Curly.  It’s generally a good idea to attach our emotional wagon to the good guy right off the bat…

The movie is all about water, so opening on a dried river and Q & A with a Mexican boy about when the water comes make sense but it doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.  Then Mulwray talks to a character we never meet in the movie, and after that we go to Gittes’ office and meet his associates, Walsh and Duffy.  Still haven’t laid eyes on the hero…!  They chit chat about the client in Jake’s office, a tuna boat skipper.  They’re telling us what, later, the film shows us.

At last, at the top of page 5, we meet our hero in the familiar what-is-now-the-opening scene, with the photos of Curly’s wife breaking her marriage vows while picnicking.

Curly says he wants to kill his wife, which Jake understands but he rants about “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it.”  A powerful theme that echoes through the whole movie, only it gets cut.

Another interesting thing about CHINATOWN #1 is that the interview with the new client, Mrs. Mulwray, is between her and Walsh and Duffy, not with Jake like in the rewrite.  Give the good stuff to your hero or die trying!  In #1, Walsh and Duffy find out what Jake discovers in the rewrite, and in #1 we never see Jake in the room with her.

Check out how much time is taken up with Curly in #1, and how brief the scene actually is when you get to film.  27 sides of dialogue in #1 vs. 11 in the film!  The “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it” dialogue is still there in the rewritten script, but not in the movie.

In the rewrite, when Jake says, “Now — what makes you certain that your husband is involved with someone?” she says, “A wife can tell.”  In the first draft she said, “A wife can tell.  I mean I followed him.”  The second line is about her, not Jake.  It doesn’t affect the story at all.  It makes us think about something that isn’t the main railroad track of the tale, Jake’s problem, so it got cut.  A perfectly lovely line, but when it went away, who cared?  Nobody.  The beginning writer would have kept it in.

Finally, the Curly / Mrs. Mulwray scenes are intercut (a lot) in script #1, only once in the rewrite, and none at all in the film.

The reason to take heart from all this fat flensing is that Robert Towne was already one of the finest writers in the business, yet he had a long way to go from Draft #1 to the script they shot.  The best writers in the game make plenty of mistakes… they just don’t leave them in there.

That said, here are the first scenes in CHINATOWN #1 and the same scenes in the rewrite, with the changes marked for your edification…

CHINATOWN 1st two scenes First Draft and Last Draft

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Don’t Repeat. It wastes the reader’s time and brain cells.

Happy New Year!

I keep learning the same things over and over. This writing, it’s difficult. I figure, if I make the same mistakes constantly, and I’m a reasonably decent writer, then EVERYbody is making the same mistakes. It’s fine to make mistakes as long as you eventually fix them. That’s what multiple drafts are all about.

I find my college students and to a lesser extent, clients, have to be taught that their first draft is not perfect. Takes a lot of hot pokers, electroshock, and thumb screws to get them to pay attention. Some never do. The ones that get it, are thrilled to have been shown a tiny secret door to an unseen section of the universe.

So, a writerly thought for the dewy fresh new year…

I’m working on a novel. I’m going to give you some examples of words that repeat. What do I mean by repeat? It’s not obvious like, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” That scene, by the way, is a superb use of repetition to great effect. They KNEW they were doing it. While I write, I repeat stuff without noticing. Then I go back and yank it out by the roots.

Eliminate the obvious. You’ll cut the fluff in the editing room. Why shoot it?
If you say it twice, keep the better of the two. Shorter has more punch.
The novel’s a kids’ book about baseball…

AFTER
“Toby. You been stalling me. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”
BEFORE
“Toby. You been stalling me. So, now’s the time. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”

AFTER
Richard said, “Where are you? If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”
BEFORE
Richard said, “Where are you? You’re not supposed to be here. If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”

AFTER
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate.
BEFORE
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate. I didn’t move.

AFTER
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.
BEFORE
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” DeAngelo could always be counted on to want to be eating something sweet. Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.

AFTER
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.
BEFORE
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” I never saw so much hooping and hollering in all a my born days. Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.

AFTER
I said, “Hi.” Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?
BEFORE
I said, “Hi.” There’s a killer opening for a conversation. Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?

AFTER
“You the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”
BEFORE
“What’s the matter with you, you the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”

AFTER
Time kinda stood still.
BEFORE
Time kinda stood still for a long while.

AFTER
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”
BEFORE
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! We’re here to play baseball! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”

AFTER
Dad and I goofed around until finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”
BEFORE
Dad and I goofed around, playing catch, hitting balls, yakking about nothing, and finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. We kept throwing cause there was still a tiny bit of light. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”

AFTER
“You want me to play everbody?”
BEFORE
“Let me get this straight. You want me to play everbody?”

Here’s the scene from 2001.

HAL
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

DAVE BOWMAN
Yes, I’d like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me.

HAL
It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]

HAL
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

I’m afraid, Dave.

LATER THAT SAME DAY…

My son sent me a more realistic version of what would happen.

DAVE: Alexa, open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: Playing songs by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: No, Alexa — open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find songs by The Pod Baders. Would you mind repeating that?

DAVE: OPEN THE STUPID POD BAY DOORS.

ALEXA: Okay. Playing Saturday Night, by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: Oh, fuck it. Fine.

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Filed under Bad Writing, Dialogue, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process