Saturday, November 1, 2008

More on writing characters

I wouldn't say I've mastered any aspects of screenwriting yet, but there are certainly some that I'm a lot closer on than others.  Writing short but effective scenes (i.e., the "get in late, leave early" rule), making my descriptions clear and vivid, piecing together an exciting plot -- these are things I'm starting to get the hang of, more or less.  But creating interesting and compelling characters who change in a believable way over the course of the script and behave consistently?  I think I've got a ways to go on that front.  

The genres I've been working in -- action, adventure, thriller -- don't necessarily lend themselves to character work, since the plot is the main attraction and it needs a lot of care and attention.  That doesn't mean character isn't important in those genres, though.  If I'm going to send you off on an adventure with Main Character X, you need a reason to want X to survive that adventure and get what he wants in the end -- and that reason can't just be "it's a movie and that's what's supposed to happen."  The characters give the movie its heart.  Without them it's just an exercise -- maybe a thrilling and effective one, but an exercise nonetheless.  And that's a lesson I've learned the hard way on script after script.  

The mistake I keep making is that I tend to make the inciting incident (the thing that happens early on to kick the main plot into gear) the event that defines the main character; but in a good script, the character needs to already be defined by the time the incident happens.  In Die Hard, the writers do a pretty good job of establishing Bruce Willis's character before the Nakatomi Plaza situation hits the fan.  He's a cop, he's a likable guy, he cares about his family but he's separated from his wife, and he's disappointed to learn that she seems to view the relationship with less hope than he does.  Once we get through all those character beats, his wife is taken hostage; now the marriage is being threatened in a much more frightening way, and he'll have to fight off an entire building full of heavily armed bad guys to save it.  This is probably not the way you'd describe the film to someone who'd never seen it.  More likely you'd sum it up by saying something like, "It's about this one cop who has to save a bunch of hostages from a building full of terrorists."  You might not even mention that his wife is one of them, or that their relationship is strained, or any of those beats I described a few sentences ago.  But they're absolutely essential to the movie.

Let's look at it from another angle.  Let's say Die Hard has yet to be written and you're trying to write it.  You have this idea about an average cop taking on a whole team of terrorists singlehandedly.  It sounds great so far -- high concept, big star appeal, potential for lots of great scenes.  And then you hit the inevitable stumbling block, namely: Well, why would he do that?  Why would one non-super-powered human being try to take down a whole unit of well-trained, well-armed bad guys?  ("Because he's awesome!" only works if it's Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris and the movie is going straight to video.)  No doubt about it, there better be a pretty good reason in there or the movie's going to seem pretty silly, and not in the fun way that most action movies are silly, but silly in the utterly moronic sense.  

So, okay, you deal with the issue by making his wife one of the hostages.  Easy.  Takes one line of dialogue to establish, and now he has a reason.  Is that enough?  Maybe.  At least it makes the story somewhat believable.  Does it make it interesting, though?  Not really, because nothing in that one line of dialogue is going to do much to push the story beyond the ordinary.  Thus, we have to add a twist.  His wife doesn't want him back.  Ah, now we're getting somewhere.  An ordinary cop takes on a building full of terrorists to rescue the wife who seems to have fallen out of love with him?  That's pretty interesting.  He's not just trying to save her; he's trying to save the marriage.  (By gunning down a bunch of sinister Europeans.)  Even if he succeeds, we don't know if she'll take him back.  

Clearly, the stuff in the above paragraph is not necessarily what we remember most about Die Hard.  But it's essential, because it gives a backbone to everything else in the movie.  The pleasure we get from seeing Bruce take down bad guy after bad guy all stems from the fact that we know a little something about his personality and life issues before the action starts going down.  We know there's more at stake than just his survival, or the survival of the hostages.  There's a marriage that we're hoping gets restored by the end of the film.  This doesn't make Die Hard any more than an action movie, but it makes it an effective one.

Side note: People knock Spielberg for always having absentee fathers, divorced parents, etc. in his movies; they take that motif as an indication of his own deep-seeded father issues.  I take it as an indication that he understands good storytelling and recognizes that by presenting us with a broken relationship at the start of a film, he gives us something to invest in for the duration.  

Monday, October 27, 2008

Starting Over

If you're looking for a creative endeavor that's conducive to mood swings, you can't do much better than screenwriting, which has about as many emotional peaks and valleys as a Meat Loaf song. First there's the excitement of having a really great idea smack you in the face. This is one of the best feelings there is, because it's totally unadulterated. The idea hasn't had a chance to be poked, prodded, criticized, expanded, compressed, rewritten, polished, re-polished, and so forth; it's just an idea. You haven't even put it into a sentence yet. It may fall apart horribly as soon as you try to put it into a sentence. Doesn't matter. It sounds good, and it excites you, and it's why you're a writer, because there aren't a lot of other disciplines that consist of sitting around asking yourself stuff like, "What if you built a machine to go back in time and kill Hitler, but Hitler found out about it and built his own time machine to go forward and kill you?"

Of course, this initial thrill can't last. Inevitably it's followed by one of two outcomes, neither of which is all that enjoyable. The first is the realization that the idea actually sucks (see Hitler-killing example) or has been done to death (again, see Hitler-killing example, which is clearly the same plot as both Terminator 2 and Bambi). The second is the realization that the idea is good but will take a ton of work to execute. Oh, sure, you should be ready for this by the time you're writing your second script, but I've been hatching half-brained ideas for over a decade and still fool myself into thinking that it's going to write itself as soon as I sit down. There will be lots of story problems that need solving, characters that need to be created, thrilling sequences that require careful planning.

This is the stage I'm at right now. The idea made it past the initial sniff test, seemed worthy of several months of my strenuous efforts, so now it's time for those efforts to begin. And begin they have! I've started working on the characters, the overall spine of the thing, the exciting moments, the stuff you need to fill up a movie. I'm in the process of gathering research materials, which include (partial list):

- episodes of the A&E series Cities of the Underworld
- the Nick Hornby suicide-bonding book A Long Way Down
- the movies Clue and Sneakers, both childhood favorites
- Wikipedia articles on cryptozoology, steampunk, the Colossus of Rhodes, the history of geographical coordinates, and the Concorde jet
- a smattering of information about various American billionaires

You know, the usual. It's going to be fun, but it's going to be work.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Waiting Game

Well, the rewrite came and went in less time then I'd planned. On the one hand, it felt like a copout to throw in the towel two weeks before the Fade In Awards contest deadline, but on the other hand, it just felt done. Not to say that I'll never do any more work on it, because I'm sure I'll have to, especially if there ends up being any interest in it -- but for now, I feel pretty good standing by it as-is.

I didn't realize it since I've never really gotten to this point with another script, but the only thing more nerve-wracking than writing a script is figuring out what to do with it once it's done. I don't have an agent, or a manager, or an uncle named Spielberg, so the options are not immediately clear.

Here's what I've done so far.

1. Registered it online with WGA. Cost: $20. No-brainer.

2. Submitted it to for consideration to the Fade In Awards. Cost: $47.50. I don't know if it's the best or most widely recognized screenwriting contest in the world, but it did have a deadline of October 31 which helped spur me on to finish the script. If I win, I get an iMac and an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles to meet with agents and producers and such. Since I live no more than 30 minutes from any of the studios, I'm really hoping they'll pay out the cash equivalent for the plane ticket and lodging.

3. Posted to Cost: $0. A good way to get peer review, as well as potential consideration from Kevin Spacey's production company. So far the script is rated #594 out of something like 2,200 total scripts, which means I'm close to the top 25% after only four reviews. I don't really know how good that is. I think you need to be in the top ten for it to really mean anything. We'll see. I'm reading and reviewing a lot of scripts in return, to get my script assigned to as many members as possible.

4. Emailed script to a few friends. Cost: maybe a drink or two.

5. Updated Facebook status to beg well-connected people to read my script. Cost: my dignity.

6. Purchased basic coverage package from ScriptShark. Cost: $155. I know, ouch. The upside is that my script gets read by a professional who will provide me with detailed feedback, analysis, and opinion -- and, if said feedback/analysis/opinion are positive enough, the script gets shown to a network of agents, managers, producers, plumbers, rumrunners, and so forth. So, at the very least, it can't end up being a complete waste of money.

So that's where I am at the moment. In addition, I'm trying to get started on the New Script -- the shiny, beautiful, magnificent idea that kept taunting me while I was trying to finish the last one. It still looks shiny and magnificent, but it's also going to be a hell of a lot of work. Example #247 of why thinking about a project is always a lot more appealing than doing it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rocknrolla, rewriting, and outlining

After finishing off the first draft of my as-yet-untitled thriller this week, I took a few days off before launching into the rewrite. On one of those days (nights, actually) I headed to the ArcLight to catch Rocknrolla, which was alleged to have been Guy Ritchie's triumphant return to form after his last couple regrettable films.

Except I'd still call this one regrettable. Now, I realize that seeing an 11PM movie carries with it certain risks of nodding off, but I try to be conscious of that fact and only see late movies that are hysterical, action-packed, or both. Oscar-baiting films are bad choices; MTV Movie Award-baiting films are good. I don't think Rocknrolla will be winning much of either. I fell asleep more times than I could count. By the 30 minute mark I was already considering walking out, but the ArcLight's ticket prices are high enough to make you hope and pray that the film gets better. This movie never does, but it does get simultaneously more complicated and less interesting.

I blame Matthew Vaughn. As film geeks know, he was Ritchie's producer (as well as the best man at his wedding to Madonna) until 2002 or so, when he split off to direct his own stuff. The first picture he made was called Layer Cake, and while it resembled Ritchie's films in its focus on low- to mid-level English gangsters, it was in a different galaxy in terms of tone and structure. It also got better reviews than either Snatch or Lock, Stock... even though it appealed equally to jaded 18 year-olds. (And, perhaps most importantly, it served as the perfect Bond audition for Daniel Craig.) Meanwhile, Ritchie's career went into somewhat of a downward spiral.

Remember when the first Foo Fighters album came out, and it was good enough to make some critics wonder if Dave Grohl hadn't been the real brains behind Nirvana? I think it's fair to say that the same kind of doubt has arisen here -- and not just in the minds of movie whores like me. After all, Matthew Vaughn was being hand-picked to helm X-Men 3 (a job he eventually quit) while Guy Ritchie was off shooting Revolver, a film that barely even got a U.S. theatrical release. I haven't seen it, but it's hard to believe it could be even more boring or pointless than Rocknrolla. (Filmic masochist that I am, I'm half-tempted to Netflix it and find out for sure.)

I can never be sure which is more damaging to the psyche of a screenwriter -- seeing a great movie, or seeing a terrible movie. You're either left with the uncomfortable knowledge that you'll probably never write anything half as good, or with the uncomfortable knowledge that someone else got paid a lot of money to write something you wouldn't even have considered worthy of a second draft. Then again, both of those can be taken as good reasons to get your butt in the chair and write, which is what I did on Sunday.

One of the interesting things about writing this blog, at least for me, is going to be seeing how many times I end up contradicting myself. Several months ago I wrote some kind of treatise on rewriting in which I discussed the benefits of starting from scratch on the second draft, keeping the original draft in mind but not working directly from it. I'm not here to repudiate that method completely, but I will say that I sure as hell ain't going that route this time -- and not just because it sounds onerous, but because I think I wrote a good enough first draft to merit using a surgical knife rather than a wrecking ball (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

That feels pretty good, I must say -- to be starting with a script I already consider good, instead of something that I could never show someone without making a million disclaimers first. (With this one, I'd only have to make about a dozen.) I'm shooting for a second draft by the end of the month, which would be a completely insurmountable goal if I were starting from scratch. (I think the rewrite on my last script took more like three months -- and even then, it wasn't close to ready for prime time.) Writers of all breeds are inevitably pointed toward Hemingway's famous quote, "The first draft of anything is shit," in an effort to make them stop rolling things around in their head and get something on the page without fear of producing bad material.

There's something to be said for that credo -- you have to start somewhere, obviously -- but I think a lot of people misinterpret it as an excuse to write as sloppily as possible the first time around. And where does that get you? Sitting in front of a 90-100 page script that's absolutely riddled with problems can be even more stressful than sitting in front of a blank screen. (Take it from someone who's been there and ended up choosing the blank screen.) There is a venue for dropping half-baked ideas onto the page, but it's not the screenplay; it's the outline. I realize that outlining is a task few writers (including myself) enjoy, but the upside of it is that an outline is much easier to edit, rework, or gut completely. You've got the whole story in front of you in a highly compressed format, and you're not wasting any artistic energy on dialogue or prose.

A screenplay, on the other hand, does not always make for easy reference material because of how long and detailed it is. Flipping (or scrolling) through dozens of pages to get to the scene you're looking for, you inevitably get sidetracked (or I do, at least) with fixing typos or re-crafting dialogue, both of which are likely a waste of time if your script needs a total overhaul. On the other hand, if you're confident with your script on the macro scale -- when the scenes and structure are the way you want them but you just need to improve the execution -- then working from the screenplay itself can absolutely be productive. On Sunday I reworked the first 30 or so pages of my script -- including completely redoing the first six pages -- in the span of several hours, a speed I never could have hoped for if the first draft was a complete mess. Since I still have two and a half weeks allotted to this draft, it's highly possible that I'll be able to work quickly enough to do yet a third pass on it before the end of the month, which would be great.

So the quality of the first draft does matter. It matters a lot. Most importantly, it matters if you don't want to devote years of your life to a screenplay -- and I sure as hell don't; I've got other ideas that need exploring.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Eagle Eye

I talked earlier about a lesson I learned from Vicky Cristina Barcelona; and another writing principle really crystallized for me while I was watching Eagle Eye this weekend, although in this case it was because of a failure (in my view) on the part of the script.

The premise of the film should be pretty familiar even to those who have only seen the poster. A mysterious voice on a phone is telling two people to do all manner of crazy illegal stuff -- but they'll die unless they do it. (There's also a good chance they'll die from doing it, but that's a story issue I'll skip over for now.)

On the face of it, that sounds like a fairly compelling film premise, even if it's one we've seen before. Enough for a $30 million opening weekend, anyway. And yet, the movie's biggest failing is that it adheres to that premise too completely. For the vast majority of the running time, the protagonists are only doing what The Voice is telling them to do. Sure, once in a while they say "No" to The Voice, but as soon as they do it, The Voice just gets even Voice-ier on them and they're forced to continue obeying.

People familiar with the academics of screenwriting might recognize that there's a cardinal rule being violated here -- the protagonists aren't acting independently; they're being driven by the plot rather than driving it. Yeah, yeah, I know. Academic arguments don't carry too far in the real world. If the movie works, it works, even if it breaks every rule there is.

But the movie doesn't work. The flaw in its DNA continues to manifest through 90% of the running time, and by the time the protagonists start doing things they're not being told to do, it's too late for the film to win back my interest (as well as the interest of the 73% of critics who rated it unfavorably). For the rest of the film, the deck is so stacked against them that they can never do anything but yield. Hence, the things they do are understandable and believable but not particularly interesting.

What if Principal Rooney had threatened to kill Ferris Bueller's entire family unless he came back to school? Well, I guess Ferris would've had to cut the joyride short. What choice would he have? He wants to have fun, but not if the lives of his loved ones are at stake. We'd see him sitting through history class with Ben Stein, eating lunch in the cafeteria, maybe dissecting a frog. No Cubs game, no parade, no "You're Abe Froman? The sausage king of Chicago?"

I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think that version of the film would have been quite as successful. Thankfully, John Hughes didn't go that route. He made it almost impossible for Ferris to get away with skipping school, but not quite. And thus all the pieces fall into place. Not only do we like Ferris, but we admire him, because he pulls off an impressive feat against improbable odds. Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, just can't do it. Their hands are tied. "If you want to live you will obey," the tagline says, and they want to live, so they just obey, obey, obey, and keep obeying. Can't blame them -- I'd obey, too -- but I do blame the writers for making it impossible for them to do anything independent.

But they can't. They're outmatched. Generally, "outmatched" is good in a movie like this (Terminator wouldn't have worked if Schwarzenegger were the good guy and Linda Hamilton were the bad guy), but there's such a thing as too outmatched. Eagle Eye isn't Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker; it's Darth Vader vs. Aunt Beru.

That's not my only issue with the story. Wrapped inside it is another one that may be even worse: The Voice is not just telling the protagonists what to do at every turn; it's also telling them exactly how to do it. And it's not just telling them exactly how to do it; it's also helping them do the things that it is telling them exactly how to do. Which is where the whole thing really falls apart. Despite my tail-wagging-the-dog quibbles with Shia and Michelle only doing what they're told, that conceit might have worked (or at least worked better) if they'd been forced to figure out how to execute the tasks The Voice was assigning them. In a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film, the protagonist usually just does what his superiors tell him to do, but at least he figures out how to do it on his own.

Of course, there are people in Eagle Eye who figure stuff out on their own; they're just not the main characters. They're Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, the intelligence agents the movie cuts away to from time to time in order to convey information that the audience already knows. We see Shia and Michelle's SUV lifted up by a remote-control crane; then Billy Bob shows up in the next scene to say something helpful like, "Looks like an SUV was lifted up by a remote-control crane." (For a movie that bills itself as edge-of-your-seat action, there sure are a lot of filler scenes.) Well, at least he's capable of independent thought.

* * * *

Anyway, that's enough bagging on this particular flick. I can only judge the script based on the finished movie, of course, not having read all (or even any) of the drafts. As far as I can tell, it was written on assignment rather than on spec (I assume this based on the fact that the "idea" for the film came from Spielberg), and when an entire script is written under duress, as it were, the results aren't always as good. Regardless of any of that, I think that good spec screenplay writers can and should aspire to better than this.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Well, the two-thirds itch has struck again, even more acutely than last time.  Am I to be plagued by this condition for the rest of my literary career?  Is everyone?  

Here's what I'm talking about.  I'm working on a script.  A good one, at least in my opinion and that of most people familiar with it.  Definitely the best one I've written so far.*  My ticket to fame and fortune?  Who knows.  I'm as optimistic as everyone else in this town who's never sold anything.  Anyway, I'm two thirds of the way through the first draft.  There's still a ways to go, but the end is well within sight if I can keep at it for just a bit longer... a few weeks, probably, definitely less than a month.

And two days ago I had an idea for another script.  Then yesterday, during a fire safety meeting, I fleshed it out a bit -- not all the way, but enough to make it feel like it could be an actual film.

You know how they always tell you to write the movie you want to see?  

This is not just a movie I'd want to see.  This is a movie I'd be desperate to see.  I'd crash the ArcLight website trying to get advance tickets the second they were released.  I'd scour the internet obsessively for early production details, right down to researching the filmography of the actor playing Unnamed Party Guest #6.

Of course, I can't work on that script yet.  I'm just not allowed to.  Okay, that's not true.  It would be a mistake.  In one hand, I have 60 pages of an actual script; in the other, a couple hours' worth of brainstorming on an idea for a script.  It makes no sense to quit the first to begin the second.  It makes complete sense to finish the good script I've already got and then move on.

But the screenwriting brain wants what the screenwriting brain wants.  It's going to be extremely difficult to write the remaining 30-ish pages without getting distracted by the other film, which, quite frankly, excites me a lot more.  I have to do that, though; and what's more, I absolutely can not rush through the rest of the script in an effort to get working on the new one more quickly.  The script that's two-thirds done needs and deserves 100% of my creative energy to ensure that the remaining third is every bit as kick-ass as it should be.  

What I'm going through is more or less exactly what I went through on my last script -- except, last time I wasn't in the middle of nearly as good a script as I am now.  So I have even more reason to fight the temptation.  Doesn't mean it'll be easier, though.

Anyway, I look forward to writing another identical post six months from now about how the awesome, exciting, incredible script I have in mind has become tiresome and an even awesomer idea has taken form and blah blah blah.  Should be a hoot.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My sunscreen speech

I've been writing screenplays off and on for ten years.  I think I've come a long way (though the results have been more mental than tangible), yet it's remarkably easy to go back into the mindset I had when I was writing my very first script.  What's interesting about that, in sort of a hilarious way, is I wasn't the least bit intimidated -- much less so than I am now when I write.  The task seemed remarkably straightforward, and I knew I was going to knock the sucker out of the park.

So, okay, there was one of my problems.

I don't know if I could have done a better job on that script.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  I think it's Robert Rodriguez who said that every writer has about a half-dozen bad scripts in him that need to be purged before the good stuff can start coming out, and the more I write the more I agree with the sentiment.  For whatever it's worth, though, I definitely would not write that script today, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I'm a much better writer.  I just know that I could not bring that idea off.  

Which leads me to wonder: What is a good script for a new writer to attempt?  I'm not sure I have a good answer.  There are a million pitfalls on the way to a first script, and rather than figure out how to avoid them, many budding screenwriters tend to run straight at them.  I can't blame them; I gleefully stuck my foot into dozens of literary bear traps when I was starting out, and it took well over a year to notice the blood on my shoe.  Anyway, here are some pieces of advice I would give to first- (or second- or third-) time writers, if they cared to listen to me.  The screenwriting equivalent of my "sunscreen" speech, if you will.

1. Don't write about a hitman.  I don't know why EVERY SINGLE novice writer has such a yen to do an assassin movie, but... actually, I do know why.  It's because they think hitmen are cool.  And that's about as far as they get, planning-wise.  They think about the "cool" movies that are out there -- Tarantino films, The Professional, Fight Club, etc. -- and the element that seems to tie them together is that the main character is more or less a bad guy.  This, they reason, is the shortest path to coolness.  What they fail to consider is how much of an uphill battle it is to get an audience or reader to sympathize with someone who kills for money.  A more seasoned writer might be able to pull it off; a moderately experienced writer would probably be scared away by the task; a newbie writer just doesn't realize it's an issue.  

Once in a great while, someone hits on a good idea for a hitman movie.  I think the last one was The Matador.  We should all be very, very lucky (and talented) to write a movie that good.  It really should have been nominated for Best Picture.  And that's what it takes to pull off a sympathetic hitman.  Anyone not in that echelon of screenwriting (which is to say, most of us) should stick to protagonists who are naturally easier to like.

2. Write what you know, to an extent.  "Write what you know" is a sentiment that's hard to argue with in theory, and there are any number of stories that can be trotted out in its defense.  Dashiell Hammett worked for Pinkerton's.  Ian Fleming was in the British Secret Service.  Michael Crichton is an M.D.  Charles Dickens was a child laborer.  Well, good for them.  (Not so much Dickens, though he clearly turned out all right.)  But not all of us has the exact right personal experience to draw from when we're sitting down to pen our latest epic.  Does that mean we should avoid completely any story that we haven't lived?  Of course not.  Quite the opposite, in fact, especially when it comes to screenwriting.  In practically every writing class I've taken, there's that one student who's writing a script that is very personal and yes, every single detail really happened, and it's very important that the story be told this way and so on and so forth.  I'm sorry, but in the vast majority of cases, no one is going to want to read that script.  It might be your story, but it's still a story, and the fact that you lived through it doesn't make a difference to anyone other than you (and maybe your family and friends).  A personal story is a great starting point for a script, but to make it a good one you'll need to change it, expand it, compress it, combine characters or create new ones -- and above all, remember that your goal at the end of the day is a good story, not a documentary about your life.   

Then again, the flipside is also true.  Consider Pulp Fiction.  Tarantino was never a hitman, probably never even knew a hitman.  He made up all the mob stuff or borrowed it from other movies.  But he did grow up in Los Angeles, and every quirk of L.A. life in the movie comes directly from his own experience.  Ditto the conversation about Amsterdam and the treatise on foot massages.  And by laying a big, made-up story over a variety of personally familiar details, he and Roger Avary wrote a fantastic script.  Doing this well is difficult, because those personal details don't fit in just anywhere; shoehorn them in and they'll look shoehorned-in.  However, I think it's important, especially as a new writer.  

If you want your first few scripts to be worthy of someone else's time, they need to have elements that only you can bring to them.  If that isn't the case, and your scripts are only inspired by other movies, then you'll be at a big disadvantage because you're trying to do something that lots of other writers can do extremely well -- and your work will be distinguished only by its inferiority.  In other words, if you've never written a screenplay before and you try to write a kick-ass James Bond script your first time out, it's going to suck.  (I know.  I tried.)  But if you write a script about a topic of personal interest to you, on which you have some interesting things to say, then it'll at least have a chance of being worth reading even if the execution isn't totally there.

But that summer you rented a shack by the lake with your friends and smoked a lot of pot and sat around telling dirty jokes -- that doesn't count.

So: why am I harping on the hitman stuff and the uninteresting personal story stuff so much?

Because these are the kinds of scripts written by people who are not really writers.  

The dispiriting stuff we hear all the time -- You're writing a screenplay?  Oh.  Isn't everyone? -- 40,000 scripts registered to the WGA every year -- all that stuff -- it's misleading because it doesn't take into account the massive number of non-writers who try to write screenplays.  Check out some of the material uploaded to the peer-reviewing site for a window into this phenomenon.  There are tons of people out there that couldn't put together a coherent paragraph if you asked them to, yet are bravely writing 100-page screenplays.   I don't want to discourage those people, but at the same time, if you're serious about making a go of it as a writer, you do NOT want to be mistaken for one of them.

If you write a hitman script filled with movie in-jokes, or a talky, rambling tale about breaking up and getting back together with your girlfriend, then you run that risk.  The people who read your first script are already armed with a million reasons not to take you seriously; there's no need to throw in a few more.

And, oh yeah, wear sunscreen.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to write

It's always fun to hear what famous and successful writers have to say about their writing schedules and habits.  Usually it's something like, "I get up at 8:00 every morning.  I brew myself a fresh cup of coffee, read the New York Times, perhaps circle some articles that have story potential.  Eat a healthy breakfast, then sit down to write for a few hours.  Have lunch, run errands.  Write for another few hours until dinner."

And... well -- yeah, great, dude.  That's great to know if you already write for a living.  Except, if  you already write for a living, you probably don't need any tips on organizing your writing schedule, because you must have come up with a pretty good writing schedule to get where you already are.  What about the rest of us, who aren't already under contract with Universal, receiving monthly royalty checks, taking our pick among lucrative writing assignments?

I get up at 6:45 Mondays through Fridays, work from 8 to 5, generally hit the gym after work three days a week, often have class one evening a week, and try to have some fun on the weekend before the cycle starts again.  There's time in there for writing, but it's not always easy to find.  (And it's a lot harder for people who work in entertainment, like I used to in my less sane days.)  Some people solve the problem by adhering to a strict schedule... like the hypothetical employed writer referred to in the first paragraph, but on a smaller scale.  Two hours a day, an hour a day, three hours three times a week, or whatever.  

I have tried many times to implement a system like this in the past.  As far as I can remember, it has never, ever worked.

First: I just hate trying to design and adhere to a schedule.  Ironically enough, this process actually enables my procrastination.  It works like this: if you assume that you need a schedule in order to write, then the converse must also be true... that you can't write until you figure out a schedule.  I say to myself, "I'm not writing yet because I don't have a schedule yet.  Once I figure out a schedule, I'll be productive.  I'll definitely do that one of these days."  Because the scheduling itself is not on a schedule.  It's whenever I get around to it.  And let me tell you, I can live in that netherworld for weeks or months.

Second: Well, here's where I risk drifting into writer heresy.  But I think it needs to be said.  And I'll even bold it.  Committing a certain amount of time to writing is not necessarily productive.  Yes, I went there, I crossed the line, I spat in the face of every writing teacher and book and mantra that has ever existed.  And hold your breath, because I'm about to make things even worse.  Sometimes -- maybe even often -- spending an arbitrary amount of time writing can be counterproductive.  I'll just sit here and wait for the gunmen to arrive.  In the meantime, let me explain why I believe that.  I'm drawing only from my own experience, of course, but I have a feeling I'm not the only person to whom this applies.

Some people write simply for the enjoyment of writing.  They're not looking to make a career out of it, they have no interest in selling what they write, they might not even show their work to anyone else.  For those people -- whom, it must be noted, I do not intend to disparage in any way; writing is a noble pursuit regardless of the context -- spending time writing is the goal in itself.  But it's not a goal in itself to the rest of us; we need tangible results.  A screenplay (or a book, or an essay) is counted in pages, not hours.  And not just pages -- good pages.  

Just spending the time does not guarantee that you will generate pages, and if you do, it definitely doesn't guarantee that they'll be good.

And -- I know, sometimes you need to crank out pages even if they're bad... to get to the next scene, to establish a placeholder for something better, etc.  But I really try to minimize this sort of thing.  Bad writing usually takes just as much time and mental energy as good writing, and I don't like spending hours upon hours feverishly sputtering out words and thoughts that are beneath my talent.  I don't know about you, but if you ask me what keeps me motivated as a writer (obviously not the money, at least not yet), my answer would be: producing good material.  When I read my own work and it really engages me, when I can visualize the movie the pages are describing and it's one that I'd want to see, then I'm spurred on to keep writing.  When I read my own work and it's bad, I don't feel the same push.  More likely, I'll have a bad case of writer's block the next time I sit down.  That, right there, is how writing can actually be counterproductive.  Bad pages plus being bummed out plus writer's block?  Not progress, to me.

So I try to minimize the bad writing and maximize the good.  (Yes, I am totally the first person to figure out such a scheme.)  I don't do this by keeping to a writing schedule.  Instead, I focus on results.  Ten pages a week, to me, is pretty good.  It's not going to set any land speed records, but that's still a pretty good complete script in a little over two months.  And when I write those ten pages is up to me.  Maybe I write 3-4 pages on three different days, maybe all ten in one marathon Sunday afternoon.  I just know I'm going to get them done.  Also, importantly, I really try to have a plan.  

Having some idea of what you're going to write when you sit down, can be helpful.  And I really do mean some idea.  Not necessarily the complete idea, but enough to go on.  Like, "this week I need to write the scene where Bob escapes the dude with the shotgun."  I don't necessarily know how he escapes him, but I'm confident that I can figure that out once I sit down.  I don't need to plan out every single beat of the escape, and even if I did, I'd probably change it once I sat down to write it.  But I do need that much.  "This week I need to write the scene where Bob does something heroic" isn't enough.  If that's all I have, then I know I'm going to be blocked when I write it.  My mind will go in a thousand directions and I'll just end up writing the first thing that comes to my mind, which will probably suck.  So, yes, having a plan is important.  And the great thing about planning is that I can do a lot of it when I'm not even at the computer.  Driving, working out, eating lunch, pretending to listen to someone... all great venues for planning.  

So that's what works for me right now.  Have a plan, write good pages, feel good about them, write more good pages.  I may one day repudiate everything I've just written, and that day may be next Wednesday, but until then I'm happy with it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


My girlfriend Alexis and I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona this past weekend. Definitely one of Woody Allen's stronger recent films, not quite up there with Match Point, but very good nonetheless. Going into it, I was worried that it would be silly, fluffy, little more than an excuse for the cast and crew to hang out in Barcelona for a few months. The trailers really played up the comedy, and all-out laughs haven't really been Allen's strong suit lately (see Curse of the Jade Scorpion for definitive proof). Thankfully, Vicky is firmly in the genre of dramedy -- it's not afraid to get serious and uncomfortable -- and the laughs are organic to the material. But the reason I'm bringing the movie up is that it turned out to have a lot of useful lessons on writing good characters.

The main one:

Contrasts illustrate character.

Newbie screenwriters, when faced with the task of "establishing" a character early in the script, will often go about the task in the most difficult way possible: by essentially putting the character in a vacuum, presumably so that the reader can observe her directly and (presumably) get to know her quickly. We see Character X looking over her stamp collection, arguing with a barista at Starbucks, applying for a loan, etc. etc. Bad way to do it, if you ask me. It doesn't tell us that much about the character, so it's an inefficient use of screen time. And good screenwriting is largely about efficiency.

So, what's the efficient way to get to know a character? Better yet, what's an efficient way to get to know more than one character at the same time? Easy -- put two (or more) of them in a scene together, create an external event, and show how each of them reacts to it differently. Overly simplistic example: Becky and Cindy are in the kitchen together. A mouse scampers in. Becky shrieks and jumps up on the counter. Cindy bends down and says "Aw, I love mice!" There you go. In two or three lines you've gone a long way towards establishing both of these characters. Like I said, overly simplistic. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona embraces this principle from the very first scenes, and as a result we really get to know both the main characters over the course of the film and, thus, become emotionally invested in the story's outcome. Which is essential to the success of any movie, no matter the genre.

Another good example: The Breakfast Club. Before those kids get put into weekend detention together, they're all living completely separate high school existences in which they'd probably never come in much contact with one another. Does John Hughes show any of that? Nope. He puts them in that library on page three, and starts illustrating the characters for us by having them react to the same situations in their own unique ways. To me, that's much more effective than intercutting. Look how much we learn by observing how each of them treats Anthony Michael Hall, the shy, grade-skipping nerd. Or how each of them reacts when different topics are brought up for discussion: Do they have a lot to say? Do they tell an obvious lie? Do they clam up or change the subject? Every reaction is telling, and the fact that we see so many of them at once is both more efficient and more effective -- because contrasts illustrate character.

And, lest you think this kind of approach only works in talky character-driven films, look how the writers of Speed (Graham Yost, an uncredited Joss Whedon, probably others) develop Keanu Reeves's character in the opening scenes. They need to set him up as a credible action-movie hero, someone we'll believe can pull off all the daredevilry and quick-thinking that will be required of him once the shit hits the fan. So they give him a partner (Jeff Daniels). Both of them are SWAT, so they both have to be pretty tough and clever, but even so, the contrast is obvious -- Keanu is the one hatching all the crazy schemes and undertaking the death-defying feats, while Daniels is clearly a more toe-the-line kind of guy who'd prefer to go home alive at the end of the day. By the end of that opening sequence, then, we know that Keanu is smarter, tougher, more bad-ass than even your average SWAT team member. And thus we can buy him as an action hero. (On the subject of efficiency, it's worth noting that Daniels's character gets used in a variety of other ways over the course of the script. As important as contrasting is, you can't really get away with bringing in a character for that purpose alone.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Second Draft

For the first time ever, I'm doing a real second draft of a screenplay.

It feels pretty weird. This is seriously uncharted territory. I used to have a system, and I stuck to that system. It consisted of:
  1. Come up with idea for movie. Start writing script before really finishing an outline.
  2. Write first draft of script. Take forever. End around page 80 due to insufficient idea generation.
  3. Later on, take a look at 80-page script.
  4. Decide script cannot be salvaged, except for maybe the dialogue (which is, of course, completely useless out of context).
  5. Go back to step 1. This time it'll be good, though!
This time, I did things differently. Well, step #1 was sort of the same -- though, to my credit (or discredit), I did spend several months non-completing the outline. Then, with step #2, I really took a detour. I finished the first draft in under two months -- not ultraspeedy, I'll grant, but way faster than I've ever written a screenplay before.

(Digression? Here's one trick that really helped me. Often, and I don't think I'm alone here, I'll hit a literary brick wall wherein I have absolutely no idea either how to get through a scene, or how to start the next one, or both. And I'll sit there staring at the screen, and a few thoughts will go through my head. The first one is that there's nothing to do; I'm just fucked, unless I throw out the last several pages, which is the last thing you want to do in an early draft. Eventually that thought disappears, replaced by the notion that I just need more time to figure out what to do -- like, if I sit around and think for a few hours/days/years, I'll really come up with something good. Let me tell you, that's one hell of a tempting idea, since it excuses me from actually writing for some indefinite period of time. But in practice, it's usually a fallacy; chances are, a bunch of "thinking" time will go by with no good ideas to show for it, and I'll give up and just write down the first shitty thing that comes to mind. And that right there is the trick. Rather than waste all that time, I just write that shitty thing now! Why not? It's going to be the same amount shitty either way. Might as well get it over with and move on. Sure, it hurts a little to knowingly write something bad, but you get used to it, like getting pricked with a needle at the doctor's office. The worst part is the anticipation. Digression over.)

On to step #3. Truth be told, I don't think I actually read the entire thing cover to cover before I started the rewrite. I also don't think I really needed to. In fact, it might even be better that I didn't. Because my goal wasn't simply to rewrite the pages I had; my goal was to come up with a better version of the story. And there's the rub. That's where all these years of struggling with the basics of screenwriting finally (partially) paid off -- in the discovery of what that very important, italicized-and-bolded phrase means. I guess it means taking what I like about the story and the characters and keeping it in my brain while writing an essentially brand-new script. As tempting as it might be to work directly off the original draft (look, a few backspaces and word changes and I'm done!), I'm pretty sure that's a losing proposition. Here's why. → Read a scene, decide it doesn't work, come up with a better one and... oops, now the next scene doesn't make sense. Or the scene before it, come to think of it. Do I really have to change both those scenes now? Is the new scene really that great? Eh, maybe it's just better to keep things the way they are. ← Death of the creative process, right there between the arrows.

Starting over is just the opposite; I'm heavily motivated to write as many new scenes as possible. Why? Because I really don't want to retype the same crap I've already written. If it looked crappy the first time, it's going to look twice as crappy the second time. Unless it was good, of course; and in those rare cases I can cut and paste it into the new draft. So far, 72 pages into said draft, I've only done that with a total of about three pages. Some of the new stuff is infinitely better. Some is slightly better. Some is probably the same. I don't think any of it is actually worse. (But I'm not done yet, so there's still plenty of opportunity for that.)

Anyway, going back to that list up there, the hardest thing right now is staying away from step #5. Because I do have an idea for my next script. It's just a nugget, but, in my humble opinion, a pretty good nugget. And I have grand visions of expanding that nugget into a real plot and characters, and writing (maybe even selling) the script. But I dare not do any of that until I'm really done with this one, because I don't want to risk wasting all the time and sweat I've invested in the current script; or, even worse, ending up with two completely unfinished projects that have no end in sight. That kind of approach might get me elected president, but it won't sell screenplays.

Not that I completely know whereof I speak at this stage in my career, but I think this situation neatly encapsulates the life of a writer: Put off the exciting, interesting task in favor of focusing on the unpleasant drudgery. Isn't screenwriting fun?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love genres

Oh, how I hated genres when I started writing. I mean, come on! Genres are everything that's wrong with modern movies. Instead of coming up with an original story, they shoehorn an idea into a narrow category that imposes all these rules on it and prevents it from ever being fun or interesting. My screenplays sure as hell were not going to fall victim to that kind of literary castration. I was going to invent a bunch of new, exciting, creative concepts that couldn't possibly bear simplistic labels like "comedy" or "drama" or "action."

So I wrote, like, three scripts. They all suck. I'm not talking "suck" in an "oh, it's just a first draft" kind of sense here; they're just plain bad, to the extent that I don't think it's even worth trying to rework any of them. (More about this here.) But hey, none of them could really be pigeonholed into one of those annoying "genre" things!

The script I'm working on now is the best one I've written. It's not perfect yet; it may never be. Just like I wouldn't expect to cook a world-class dinner the fourth time I picked up a chef's knife, I'm not holding my breath for unmitigated success on the screenplay that's only three away from being my very first.

This one is, however, firmly entrenched in a genre (action/adventure). So what does that mean? Did I, as so many others have in the past, need to take an artistic step backward in order to increase my odds of one day getting paid? Well... no. I really didn't. In fact, I'd say the current script is a hell of a lot more creative, intelligent, interesting, thematically solid, and emotionally accurate than any of the others. That's right! More interesting! Even though my only goal with the rest of them was to write something interesting. Crazy, huh.

So now for the denouement. (That's French for "the part where Velma rips the mask off the bad guy's face and he explains how he would have pulled off his whole scam if it hadn't been for those meddling kids.") Why did it work? What's so magical about writing in a genre? How many rhetorical questions can you pose before you have to resume speaking in the declarative?

The answer, I think, is relatively simple. It's about expectations. While the expectations of movies as a whole aren't all that clear, the expectations of individual genres are. Put another way, if your script has no genre, you have no idea what people will be expecting when they read it. They might toss it aside and say it's nowhere near as good as Braveheart or Goodfellas, and you can argue, no, that's not what I was going for at all... but too bad -- you didn't know what you were going for, so you didn't know what expectations you were building. But if you stick to a genre, your task as a writer is immediately clear: Figure out the expectations of your genre, and meet them.

It's not an easy task, obviously, but it's a lot more straightforward than just "write something interesting." Everything's relative, but "interesting" is a lot more relative than "exciting" or "funny" or "terrifying." Comparing Silence of the Lambs with Annie Hall, it's hard to say which one is more interesting, but it's pretty obvious which one is more terrifying and which one is funnier. That kind of clarity is especially important when it comes time to rewrite. If you've written a comedy and there are only three or four scenes that make you laugh, there's your rewriting goal. Action movie where the people are just sitting around talking most of the time? You know what to do. And so on.

Genres are also important because they provide a guide for what to borrow. And you definitely need stuff to borrow. Oh, yes you do. I'm not talking about dialogue or actual scenes or anything that specific. But general components like structure, characters, momentum... nobody creates these things from nothing. You need other movies in your genre for guidance, influence, and inspiration. If you wall yourself up in concrete and pretend that no movies exist outside your own imagination, and you're going to invent everything yourself, then what happens is that you borrow a ton of stuff without realizing it. That's definitely happened to me, and it's not good. You want to be fully aware of what you're borrowing; it's the best way to ensure that you can put your own spin on it. Much of the history of good movies vs. bad movies boils down to the difference between "uncomfortably close to Movie X" and "interesting twist on Movie X," and not being aware of your specific influences is a good way to end up with the former. Chinatown is a screenplay that everyone and their sister refer to as a paragon of original screenwriting, but the reason it's so good is because Robert Towne drew on plot conventions and characters from four decades of noir films. Then he put his own spin on it, which was the emphasis on real L.A. history. Do people call it a knock-off? Do they say it's just a retread of other movies? Of course not. But if Towne hadn't had all those direct influences to build on, Chinatown would have been just another shitty detective movie.

So, see, genres can be pretty darn helpful. And I think I'm done talking about them now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Locations are one thing I don't think I've ever had much instruction on, screenwriting-wise -- either in class or from books. Most people will teach you about the basics: (1) character, (2) plot, and (3) dialogue (in that order). Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you can't nail those three elements, nothing else is going to save you. But there are other components to a really good screenplay, and depending on the genre, some of them can be pretty important. So let's talk about one of them.

It's easy to take locations for granted when you're watching a movie. Scenes in films are typically short, and they're focused on action and character. By the time you digest those things, you're already watching a new scene that's taking place somewhere else. And that's usually true even if you're watching a film as a writer, actively trying to pick up tips. Sure, there are exceptions, like when a location is used as a punchline. Example: Guy invites girl to dinner at "the best place in town," place turns out to be a strip club. Cue laugh track. (Note: Only for use on The CW.) And there are plenty of occasions where the scene dictates the location. If the main characters are going out drinking, you can't set the scene in an elementary school classroom. (Although, if you could figure out a way to do that, it would be pretty awesome.) But I'm not interested in any of these situations right now.

I'm talking about scenes where, on the most basic level, the location doesn't really matter. A knife fight. A meeting of two competing businesspeople. A couple breaking up. A father and daughter reuniting. And so on. In any of these examples, the focus of the scene is the characters, what they're saying and what they're doing -- and rightly so. Nonetheless, finding the right location can really elevate the scene; and by extension, finding the right locations throughout can really elevate the script. Look at Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Mia's iconic dinner date is so well-written that it could take place anywhere and still be great; and the location itself doesn't really matter in the overall scheme of the plot. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that the setting -- Jack Rabbit Slim's, the restaurant everyone wishes really existed -- is what made it truly memorable. How about the chase through the sewers in The Fugitive, culminating in that historic jump? It didn't need to happen there. The sewer and the dam are not plot points in and of themselves. The plot point is really just, "Gerard finally catches up to Kimble, who makes a daring escape." You could make that happen in any number of other ways, and the movie would carry on identically afterwards. But I can't imagine another way that would have been nearly as good. As great as the entire movie is, that's the scene that we all remember 15 years later -- not just because of what happens, but because of where it happens.

The bottom line, clearly, is that locations need to serve the story. But the level to which they serve the story is highly variable. In a lot of scripts I've read (and some that I've written), the locations make sense to the story but they don't add much. Coffee shop. Office. Apartment. Yawn. Sure, you could say, a lot of movies don't have the budget for interesting locations. You could say that, but I'd disagree, because look at Swingers, which was made for practically nothing but still managed an interesting variety of settings that conveyed the feeling of being young in Los Angeles more effectively than just about any other film I've seen. Clerks, which makes Swingers look like a Spielberg film budgetwise, pretty much has just the one location -- but it's the right one, and it works. (Clerks 2, not so much.)

I remember a line from a screenwriting book I read many years ago that said all scenes have both context and content, and that writers need to be conscious of both of those elements. The notion of context is itself composed of a myriad of other factors, including but not limited to: Time, position in the story, the characters' emotional states... and, of course, the physical location of the scene. As writers, we have absolute control over every one of these details for as long as the script remains in our hands, so it behooves us to use that control to ensure that each element is perfect. We can agonize over every line of dialogue, spend hours pondering whether it's better for Steve to say "Bob, I just don't know" or "Well, Bob, I just don't know" and yet it's so easy to write "INT. BAR - NIGHT" on the very first draft and never give a second thought to whether or not a bar is the most interesting place for that scene to happen. I think part of the reason for this phenomenon is that, in trying to get our minds around this vast, 100+ page mountain of story, we tend to use locations as footholds ("We open in the park, then they're at the courthouse, then they're at the mansion, then they're on the plane, then they're at the bar...") and it can seem like we might just fall off that mountain if we mess with any of those footholds. But they're much more than footholds -- to use an entirely different metaphor, if the scene is a drink, the location is the glass it's served in. And if you really want to impress a guest, you don't just mix up the best drink you can; you also look through the cabinet for the best glass you can find.


On the torturous path to becoming a successful screenwriter, I find that I am occasionally hit over the head with revelations about the craft of movie writing -- some small, some big, some probably incomprehensible to anyone other than me. Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to start a forum for sharing these little nuggets of information, if for no other reason than to make sure they don't leave my head without being written down.