Tag Archives: Screenwriting

Isolate Character Scenes

Try anything! Guess what?! It may help. A useful tool is isolating character relationships.

“Why isolate character relationships and what the hey is it, anyway?” you ask.

“Happy I dropped by.” I say.

Look at only the scenes with Oswego and Rosalie. Constance will be in some of those scenes, too. Without the clutter of everybody else’s stories and plot threads screeching like a million seagulls, study just the Oswego and Rosalie relationship. When you only have one relationship to consider, you can calmly reflect on its imperfections.

Do it like this…

Save the draft as Oswego & Rosalie Sept 11 22 and cut every scene they’re not in, inserting ##### between their scenes so you know when one ends and one begins. Make sure you keep slug lines and scene numbers. Next to ####, write the number of pages between the last scene and this one.

I print everything, but it’s not mandated by federal law. Check state and local statutes to see if you are required to print to rewrite.

With the entire relationship spread across a few pages, problems nearly impossible to see while staring at the pile-of-horror that is your entire screenplay will stick out like a s’more in campfire coals, such as the mournful woe that, from pages 32 – 56, Oswego is nowhere to be found! How could he have vanished for 24 pages?! No way it could have been, egads, pilot error. Could it?

Studying characters’ scenes makes their relationship crystal clear. What’s missing leaps out. Are the progressions as smooth as silk? Do Oswego and Rosalie make a giant leap in their relationship that calls for three added scenes halfway through? You can see what’s moving too fast and what’s dragging. If you’ve written (more or less) the same story point three times, pick the best one and cut two.

The more you look, the more you’ll see. Soon you’ll wonder how you wrote without isolating characters’ scene.

When you’ve scribbled all over the “Oswego / Rosalie” pages, print Oswego and Constance’s scenes for the same repair lookyloo. Then print Rosalie and Constance’s! You’ll be amazed what you discover. By solving small, simple-to-find puzzles in your story, the entire tale will be strengthened… without the paralyzing depression of “I have to fix this GIGANTIC 110 page snarl of mess?! Shonda Rhimes couldn’t solve these problems!!”

Isolating character scenes is simple and delightfully effective.

Remember, try anything. What if it helps?

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The Lego Sandwich: Everything Is Specific

When, for your dining enjoyment, a child hands you a sandwich made of Legos, it’s a superb idea to ask her what every single Lego block is. You’d better remember which is the patty, the Volcano Sauce, the Sea Horseradish, the multiple mustards, and the Jellyfish Jelly. Woe unto you if you assume any one of those Legos isn’t important. Or is not there for a specific and incredibly useful reason. Each Lego in that foot tall sandwich has a function or it absolutely would not be there.

The same is true for a small child’s drawing. What looks like aimlessly scribbled scrawls of pencil lines and infinitesimal dots… to you… has essential and well-thought-out meaning for the artist. Nothing is there without an objective. Their creator can damn well tell you the reason for every hen scratch. Just ’cause it looks like gobbledygook gooey goo to you doesn’t mean it is. All has meaning. Each line adds to the work’s overall goal.

With writing, the opposite is true. Material often clouds the page solely because the writer can type fast.

If we wrote with quill pens we repeatedly dipped in ink, this pernicious word-vomitorium would be less of a thing. As the quill has gone the way of the Dodo, we tend to make our readers suffer.

When constructing a sentence, writers are WAY less diligent than children making art. Grownups are sloppy. When someone writes with next to no deliberation, sentences can have heaps of greasy fat, settling hard on the tum-tum unwanted and unappreciated. A paragraph can contain wasted words, useless phrases, or (gasp!) entire sentences that have no cause for existence.

If you don’t have one caroming around the house, either rent a kid to proofread your work and tear out every single word you don’t need… like getting rid of extra lettuce in a Lego sandwich… OR make the perhaps unfamiliar effort to proofread and rewrite exactingly all by yourself.

When it’s over, be certain nothing is on your page without a raison d’être. Just ’cause it’s there doesn’t mean you gotta keep it, unlike the six Lego mustards.

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No Time for Wasted Words

Would you like to know a stupid expression with no use in the English language? Of course!

“At this time.”

It’s meaningless. “The voicemail box is full and is not accepting messages at this time.” Why the hell say, “At this time” when you can say, “…not accepting messages”?

“I’m not interested in having sex with you. At this time.” You can always change your mind later and say “I am interested in having sex with you.” The “at this time” would be damn well understood. At this time, no one has time to read the phrase, “At this time.” Leave it out 99.44/100% of the time.

While I’m on a grumpy tear, what about “do” Who added that to the helpdesk script? “I do apologize at this time.” What about, “I apologize.” Get the job done, move on. That’s what excellent writing is: say it and leave.

As Mary Poppins would tell you, “Don’t dawdle.”

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Dumped in Love = Rewriting!

Once Upon A Time, did someone break up with you? Hurt like hell, didn’t it? Everything was terrible. Nothing worked. Life would never be the same. As Jon Stewart says, “Food no longer tastes good.”

When writing is not going well, you get more or less that same wretched feeling. It’s all your fault! You’ll never be any good at this! You’re wasting your time! The page will never love you! Everything you’ve ever done or ever will do is wrong! Why did you, for one second, think you could do this?! You’re a bad, bad person!!!

The good news… everybody feels like that!

To some degree, writers are masochists and when it’s not going well, they mangle themselves. Totally normal! Writing is interior stuff, part of your soul, and when your soul is victim of an acid throwing, you feel supremely ghastly. To return to the “Miserable in the Romance Dept.” metaphor, when writing goes on the rocks, it’s heartbreaking.

But… after your ex shreds your heart, someday the painful feeling will fade. It may take a year. It may take five. But, finally, you get back to normal. More experienced. Sadder but wiser. But, able to function and open your heart. Life improves. You feel good again.

I ask my students, “Those of you who’ve been dumped in love, have you ever been dumped more than once?” A few raise their hands. I say, “The second time felt just as horrible didn’t it?” It’s pretty much the same ripped-to-pieces feeling. Every time. When you’re six, when it first happened to me, or when you’re forty. Just like when a piece of writing goes south, it always feels awful.

The second time your heart is broken, it feels as miserable as the first… except… you survived the first one and now, in the middle of the second go-round, you can look back and think, “My life didn’t stay bleak and dark.” You have the wisdom and experience to understand that, while you’re in the middle of the second heartbreak and it’s impossible to breathe… at least you know that one of these days the pain will go away.

Just like writing.

The first time you write yourself into a hole, it’s like you’re thrown in a deep, deep well by the evil witch in SNOW WHITE. When you’re far underground and look up, above you there’s no light. But, if you go back to your desk, dig in, and keep writing, in the end you will figure out a solution. It takes time, but you will get there. Life improves. You feel good again.

It’s like the end of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?. Toontown, all gorgeous, happy, and beautifully lit, is right on the other side of a giant factory brick wall. Frustratingly, try as they might, the heroes cannot find Toontown. Struggle. Struggle. Struggle! Eventually, a gigantic clanking, self-propelled vat of Dip smashes through the wall… And lo and behold: The entire time, in all its colorful glory, Toontown was right there!

That’s like solving a writing problem. When you at long, long last think of the solution, it may seem amazingly simple. “Why didn’t I think of this a week ago?!” You fume. “Why didn’t I think of this yesterday?!” The answer is, “Because you didn’t.” Don’t beat yourself up. Just like Bob Hoskins and Roger Rabbit, you had to go through the steps before you could arrive at your oh-so-elegant solution. As you rewrite, know that the answer is… there… tantalizingly close… and all you have to do is hit the wall over and over and it will come crashing down.

Grokking that it takes time to mend a broken heart allows you to survive Heartbreaks 2 – 12. Hopefully not that many… but after you’ve repeatedly written yourself out of dark and stormy holes, it seeps into your DNA that you can solve every writing problem — no matter how hideously thorny.

Yippee!

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Filed under Bad Writing, Editing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Don’t Be a Show Off! BUT!! Remember What Your Characters Know!

Here’s a dangerous double-edged sword. Welcome to writing! Research as eeeevil vs. research as crucial. Just because you learned something existed in 1921, don’t tell us to prove your research skills are Ph.D.-worthy. As few people living today can use “Gretna Green” in a sentence, this article from a 1921 New York Times is, for a while at least, incomprehensible.

***

WINONA LAKE, Ind., May 23.—Whether a Presbyterian pastor can conduct a Gretna Green centre and continue to be in good and regular standing, will be decided by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which is holding its 133rd session here. The case is before its Judicial Commission, and that body will report tomorrow or Wednesday.

The Rev. John H. McElmoyle, Pastor at Elkton, Md., is accused of conducting the Gretna Green. Among the members of the Judicial Commission is ex-Governor James P. Goodrich of Indiana. A book of 200 pages of evidence is in the hands of each member. 

Elders of his church wanted Mr. McElmoyle dismissed from the pastorate. The case was taken to the Presbytery of Baltimore. From that body it was taken up to the Synod of Baltimore, and from there it was sent to the General Assembly, the highest court of the Presbyterian Church.

Mr. McElmoyle, according to the printed evidence, married 1,445 couples in one year. Sometimes he had as many as fifteen weddings in one day. The evidence says he had hack drivers to bring couples—many of whom were not of age—to his house. There is a story that a funeral at which he was to officiate had begun, when a hack was seen to drive up in front of his door. He left the funeral, skipped over to the house, performed the ceremony, and then went back and continued the funeral.

The evidence states that his wedding fees averaged one year $4 a ceremony, raising his income several thousand dollars.

***

In case you were wondering, and I know you were…

Gretna Greene, n. 1. A  Scottish parish famous as a home for quickie marriages performed by blacksmiths over an anvil. 2. Any location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss.

Don’t confuse your reader, but do keep in mind what your characters know. If you’re writing a 1921 period piece, everyone would know what a Greta Greene is. You would never, ever do this (explaining just for the reader) which, tragically, I see a lot of in first draft dialogue.

SALLY

That awful Reverend Mr. McElmoyle! Using all his wretched Gretna Greene money to buy an Erector Set for every youngster in Elkton.

GEOFFREY

A Gretna Green, Sally? That’s a location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss, right?

SALLY

Well, Geoff, it sure is. That awful John H. McElmoyle certainly was a busy man!

***

This writing lesson comes courtesy of my son’s most excellent newsletter, Strange Times. I highly recommend signing up for it. Every little while, the oddest articles from one day’s 1921 New York Times

While, you’re at it, pre-order the final book in his Westside trilogy: Westside Lights. I’ve read it. It’s marvelous!

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Don’t Give Characters Numbers For Names

I was 100% dead certain this superduper learning experience was in my book. It’s not!

Ooops.

Beginning writers constantly (and irritatingly) give characters numbers instead of “names”. You know, COP 1, COP 2, COP 3, or TEACHER #1, TEACHER #2. It’s soooooo boring. A name with a number tells us nothing but “Lookit, three cops!”

Even a tiny addition will boost the read. How’s about GENTLE COP, TWITCHY COP, SAD COP?

AWESOME TEACHER, PSYCHO TEACHER

SO SO BOWLER, WRETCHED BOWLER

SCARRED THUG, MUSTACHIOED THUG, OPERA-LOVING THUG

Give us something and create an image in our mind other than people bopping in who are identical except for numbers on their chests.

I refer you to my all-time-favorite Functional Character Names (which are in Your Screenplay Sucks!)… the guys in ANIMAL HOUSE who say, “Do you mind if we dance with your dates?”

BIG DUDE… BIGGER DUDE… GIGANTIC DUDE

THING 1 and THING 2 worked fine for Dr. Seuss, but 1.) they were supposed to be exactly alike and, 2.) you’re not him.

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The Hunter Thompson Writing Method

Learn about writing from famous people!

Deep in this website is The Keith Richards Writing Method (dictate while falling asleep), an amazingly useful tool. It may have brought him an entire career, because, in 1965, during his sleepy activity he wrote “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones first #1 in the U.S., and without Richards’ in-his-sleep opening riff, would the Stones be where they are today?

You never know.

My latest famous person writing method is named for Hunter S. Thompson. Hard to believe that one of the great writers of my generation was at one point a beginner.

Just like all of us.

He asked himself, “How can I learn to write well? What writers do I admire?” He answered his question, “F. Scott Fitzgerald! He’s good! Hey, so’s Ernest Hemingway!” Two gifted writers with wildly different writing styles.

Because Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson and not us, after choosing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to admire, he did not do what we’d do. He didn’t just read The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms, and think, “What wonderful prose. These guys certainly can write a ripping great sentence, can’t they? What talented writers! I’ll read more…”

He didn’t do that.

Instead of simply reading The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and trying to absorb how Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote a sentence, a page, a scene, novel… Thompson sat at his typewriter with an open copy of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and typed ’em up! Both books. Every word. He did it at work, so to his boss, he sounded like the world’s most dedicated employee.

When he finished, he knew down in his bones exactly how his favorite writers wrote.

Recently, I was critiquing students’ homework… which entails a lot of red ink on their pages, telling how to rewrite them… not necessarily for story, but mostly for flow, clarity, and overall tightness of the prose. Like a bolt from the sky, I realized, that if they only read my red ink notes, they wouldn’t learn as much as they could. To actually learn from my notes, they must employ the Hunter Thompson Writing Method.

They needed to retype their homework and load in the changes. Keep in mind, what I’m talking about is not character and story but sentences: basic writing machinery, rhythm and style, the “be clear” “less is more” rulebook.

Not being stupid, I knew that “get better at writing” is rarely sufficient incentive so I told them, “If you do this, I’ll raise your grade.” That worked! Afterward, they told me Hunter Thompson Writing Method gave their prose an amazing boost.

The second (and way more fun) iteration of the Hunter Thompson Writing Method involves, exactly as Thompson did, learning from someone you admire. Type up six scenes written by Greta Gerwig. Or a complete play by Suzan Lori-Parks. Work by Rebecca Gilman, Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Diablo Cody. Who’s killer good? To learn how they do it, type up chunks by your favorite comedians – old and new. You wanna be a composer? Learn orchestration by hand copying The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. “How did he do that?” Like this!

Do it enough, it’ll stick.

Long ago, my children’s second grade teacher, Robin Smith, their favorite teacher of all time, taught every child in her classes how to knit. Every year. It was an unforgettable sight to see six little boys at recess, sitting in a row under the basketball goal, knitting. For my second son, knitting latched on like phosphorous fire. He adored it and knitted all the time. I nearly went bankrupt buying yarn. He got exceedingly good at it. He could knit with his hands behind his back.

Time moved on. He went to high school. When he was 16, he decided that for Halloween he wanted to be Waldo of Where’s Waldo fame. He couldn’t find a Waldo hat anywhere and had forgotten how to knit, so he called Robin Smith. Delighted to hear from him, she told him what size needles and how much yarn to buy and to come to her house Sunday afternoon.

She helped him get set up, showed him what to do, and within five minutes, he was knitting equally as fluently as when he was in second grade.

Writing this has brought tears to my eyes because Robin is no longer with us, except as she flows through the souls of my children, and one of these days, through their children too.

When I called her later, to first of all thank her for helping my child, but also to express my amazement at, after a decade, how quickly he picked up knitting. I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “Once it’s in the muscle memory, it never goes away.”

Which is where the Hunter Thompson Writing Method comes in handy.

If you type someone else’s words, over and over and over again, gradually the knowledge will enter your DNA. If, instead of just reading it, you retype the homework that has been restructured and trimmed by your teacher, that skill too will slowly seep into your muscle memory.

You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.

The only way to really understand how someone else writes sentences, or writes dialogue, or anything else, is to type it up. It’s a pain in the ass, but so is writing.

If you give Hunter Thompson Writing Method a try, please let me know what effect it had. I’m excited by this idea and hope someone out there will let me know how it worked for them.

Happy typing.

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Karl’s Writing Method

My children think this is mindblowingly helpful. I’ve never managed to convince anyone else to give it a try, but, as you’re serious about writing, consider it.

Like most all of us, my friend Karl writes the first pass of his screenplay in Final Draft. To rewrite, he prints it and marks it up with a red pen. What is unique about his method is what he does next.

Most people open up Final Draft and enter the changes from the scribbled-on pages into the existing FD file. Not Karl. He sets the script next to his computer, opens a brand new Final Draft file and re-types the entire screenplay. Because we’re all inherently lazy, we will leave out any word we do not have to type. Karl’s method automatically tightens up the writing.

Karl has been the executive producer on 11 television series, writer on 12. His method works for him. You might want to try it.

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If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You…

Kipling was one hell of a writer, not a filmmaker. As you so well know, writing is a solitary event. A novelist may deal with an editor or publisher, but, unless you need a new typewriter ribbon or more ink for your pen, you don’t rub up against many people.

Filmmaking is not like that. You’re in the soup with a lot of other people. Your agent, producer, director, sound person, DP, actors, caterer, editor, colorist, sales rep… are your collaborators. They have your best interest at heart. Listen to them even if, from time to time you must ignore Kipling and his legendary poem, “If.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

In the film department I run, I see this a bunch: despite the best and repeated advice of their crew and teacher, filmmakers at times insist on doing it “their way” and fly the entire operation into the ground.

This is a thin line to walk and I get the degree of difficulty in successfully negotiating the “But they just don’t understand what I’m trying to do!” aspect of filmmaking.

Your crew is your first audience. There’s no way they can see inside your head to understand what you planned and hope for, but they can see the script, they can see the dailies, and they can see the rough cut. They can see your mistakes and if you absolutely won’t be swayed from the gleaming railroad tracks running oh-so-straight across the desert toward distant Paradise, there’s a chance those tracks will drop your train into a deep canyon.

Talking to someone who won’t listen is as rewarding as talking to a wall. At some point your crew may give up trying to give you advice.

When I was in film school, we were required to crew on a 480 (15 minute thesis film) before we were allowed to direct one. The semester before I directed, I was a cinematographer. Together, all the crews watched all the dailies for all the films. All the teachers were in the theater and gave notes as we watched each crew’s footage or cuts and the directors’ reasons for and defense of their choices.

One film was about a Sikh’s decision to cut his hair. The director had a scene where the man is in his bathroom and his girlfriend is waiting in the hall. He takes off his turban and his long hair comes down past his shoulders. He takes one hair between two fingers and pulls it down in front of his face. Holding nail scissors, he looks at the solitary hair and his face in the mirror and… cuts the hair. Nothing happens. Lightning does not strike him and, using the scissors, he hacks at all of his hair, chopping, chopping, chopping.

The scissors were too small to do the job right and the lame attempt to cut all that hair looked ridiculous. Everybody told the director that he had absolute gold if he went from the shot of the one hair being cut, to the hero’s tense wait for lighting to strike, to the girlfriend waiting in the hall, and to the man coming out of the bathroom with short hair. We all felt that, if he showed the character taking the scissors to the rest of his hair, it would be a disastrous mistake. He disagreed. He stuck to his artistic guns and did it precisely like he had always wanted. In the final film, the scene didn’t work. By then, of course, it was too late.

Next semester, when it was my turn to direct, I told my editor that if everyone told me I was doing something wrong, to make sure I listened.

If you’re making a film based on events that happened to them, you are constantly in danger of falling out of the life boat into heavy seas. Creating narrative based on personal history clouds the mind. It takes experience to understand how that, just because something was dramatic when it happened to you, it may not succeed dramatically when it gets to the screen. Be aware: real-life-into-drama can be quicksand.

My 480 was about a girlfriend I’d had in Paris. And a woman I’d dated in Los Angeles. And a French friend I yearned for but who had no romantic interest in me. Claude Lelouch was my favorite director and I wrapped these three stories around each other to tell my story like Lelouch.

It didn’t work. The only one who could follow the complex story structure was me… but I loved it. It was exactly what I’d written and shot. Everything I’d hoped for.

Late in the semester, when we were about to lock picture, my crew and editor said I needed to strongly consider cutting the thread about unrequited love. Nearly one third of the film.

The three part intercutting structure was vitally important. Losing the “friend in Paris” scenes would wreck what I’d been writing, planning and working on for a year. I really, really, really didn’t want to let go of my initial idea.

Luckily, I remembered the previous semester’s director and The Advice Not Taken. As wrenching as the decision was to go against my instincts, I decided that, because everyone was telling me I was wrong, I’d better listen. I told the editor to cut the character. Away she went.

Suddenly the film made perfect sense, worked nicely, and did well for me.

Decades later, I cannot remember anything about that missing story thread except the super cool modern house in the Hollywood Hills we shot in. It’s as if that character’s story never existed. I’d been wrong when everyone around me was right. My team helped me save my film.

If you’re making a film or writing something and everybody’s telling you you’re wrong, there’s a slim chance they could be wrong and holding on to your original plan might be the correct decision. Most likely though, they’re right and you’re not.

When that many people tell you you’ve made a mistake, listen very, very, very carefully.

When you’ve shown your film to an audience or given your writing to an agent, it’s out of your hands and there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. As Ken Robinson, my teacher at USC, told us, “You don’t get to stand next to the screen and explain it.”

I dedicated both my books to the man who gave me that piece of wisdom.

And now, I give it to you.

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Burning Shoe Leather

I see this a lot. In nightmares!

It is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a movie is not real life, but a reasonable approximation dedicated to giving a reader / audience an emotional experience.

Face it. Real life is boring. Why you think they invented movies?! Showing “real life” in a screenplay is not a good idea. Showing a shortened, heightened, more intense version of real life: drama! is a delightful idea. Anything that slows the drama is to be avoided.

“Shoe Leather” is when a character travels from one place to another. Across a room. From a car to the hospital entrance or a saunter through the hurly burly of a city street. Anytime someone goes from here to there. By foot, normally, but cars, airplanes, intergalactic spaceships also fill the bill.

That’s shoe leather. The burning thereof mostly is a waste of time. So cut it. Mostly.

Just because a guy Ubers up to his house, gets his luggage and wheels it up the sidewalk toward his front door doesn’t mean you have to show it. Even if, during a rewrite you switch it to a carry on…

At the bottom of page 1, here’s the scene.

*Pretend this is in Courier font! I used to be able to change the font. No more.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

After I printed the pages (to rewrite!), I discovered I’d violated a cardinal sin: burning shoe leather.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

I shifted the Uber arrival to the end of the paragraph, ending on action, and cut the “Rick carries” paragraph. Lo and behold, look what slipped up from the top of page 2 to the bottom of page 1?! A character with a problem. Nice work!

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn. Uber pulls up.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

Rick wakes stressed.

*

This is a movie! (or television, of course) Not real life. Like Samantha in BEWITCHED, characters can go places in the blink of an eye. You don’t have to show them go there for us to understand that they got there.

I would love to know if this is true: supposedly… until the James Bond films, characters always entered rooms. That editor decided he didn’t need to show someone coming into a room. Because she’s there, the audience will understand that the woman in the living room must have opened the door and walked in… By cutting needless entrances, he gave those films a little snap that hadn’t existed before.

It deftly illustrates my point and it’d be swell were it true.

It’s hard to comprehend how little time a film audience has to waste. Anything you can do to speed up the read or the viewing experience, do. This includes people going places for more or less no reason.

If you mark out a moment of burning shoe leather and it doesn’t affect our understanding of the scene or the following scene, why keep it? Look at the end of every scene. Does the scene end with someone getting up and going somewhere? Driving to a new location? Walking across a room toward another room?

These activities wear out their shoes. Because these days a good shoe repair shop is hard to find, you want to add wear to your characters’ shoes as little as possible. Common courtesy! While you’re looking after your characters’ shoes, you’re also taking care of your reader. Most burning of shoe leather can be cut. Not all, mind you, but muchly much.

Once upon a time, I gave a screenwriting master class in Perpignan, at a film studio in southern France. Nice work if you can get it.

There were 25 students at a conference room table. At my end, the screenwriting students. At the far end, animators. We were discussing rewriting.

One writing student asked about a scene he was about to shoot. “The character leaves their apartment building, goes down the street to the train station. Buys a ticket and gets on a train and goes to the next town. From the station, he goes to the casino.”

I said, “Why does he take a train to the next town?”

“Because that’s where the casino is.”

“Who cares if, in real life, the casino’s not in Perpignan? What if you just have him walk out of the apartment, go down the street, and enter the casino?”

The writer nodded, blown away at the agony I’d just saved him and his crew.

At the end of the table, an ashen animator spoke. “I wish I’d had you as a teacher. We had a scene where a character gets on a train in Paris, rides to the south, gets out of the train in Marseille and leaves the station. In the end, we cut the train ride, so now the character gets on the train in Paris and comes out of the station in Marseille.

Horrified, he added, “The train ride sequence took us a month to animate.”

That is my finest, and most painful, example of burning shoe leather. Would that they had cut it during the rewriting process!

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