Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Things I've Learned About Screenwriting, In Handy Bullet-Point Form

The end of the year (and beginning of the next) is a great time to make lists, isn't it? Everyone else seems to think so, and since I'd be hard pressed to come up with a list of the ten alt-punk albums with the best allusions to midcentury Bauhaus architecture, I think I'll just spout off a list of random things I've learned about screenwriting in the last ten or so years that I've been doing it.

  • Drinking and screenwriting don't mix. Sure, it seems like every famous novelist of the last 700 years was known to suck down a few before sitting down at the computer/typewriter/quill, but screenwriting is different. You need full access to your logical mind, which is exactly the thing that alcohol takes away. Save the cocktail for after you're done; it'll help you decompress.

  • If you decide to write a script because you think it will be a good learning experience -- and not because the story and characters excite you -- then don't expect it to be anything other than a learning experience.

  • That being said, every script (and every rewrite) should be a learning experience anyway, and you should be looking for ways to grow and expand your talent with each one. Take chances; do things a little differently than you did last time.

  • Writing advice is like religion: it's ubiquitous and comes in many varieties. It's also like religion in that people tend to use it to validate their own preconceptions, rather than challenge them. Thus, if you're the impulsive, impatient type, you're likely to fixate on the charming curmudgeon who tells you to plunge straight into the first draft with zero prep work, and ignore the zen master who tells you to spend two months on character sketches before you even outline. Which is too bad, because it's the second guy you should be listening to.

  • Don't let anyone tell you that dialogue doesn't matter. There is virtually no script that cannot be made better by improving the dialogue, even if all the other elements are perfect.

  • However, banter is not good dialogue.

  • Also, improving the dialogue often means cutting some of it out.

  • By far the most important reason to write an outline is to ensure that you have enough great scenes for a complete script. It's not fun, but you know what's less fun? Getting to page 50 and realizing you're already in the third act. If you're tempted to skip straight to FADE IN: without outlining, it almost definitely means you're going to come up short.

  • About 10% of people who say they have writer's block are actively struggling with a story problem. The other 90% are just afraid to sit down to write because they think they'll have writer's block when they do.

  • When reviewing someone else's script, be brutally honest but always leave them some hope. Find things to like about their writing style, or one of the characters, or something else. Say the nice things first, then go into the faults, and end with a statement of confidence in their ability to improve the script. All the better if you can find a great scene and tell them that more of the script should be like that. If their response is to defend almost every point that you criticized, well, that's too bad for them. The surest sign of a novice writer is the inability to handle criticism (and even more importantly, to use it).

  • An "everyman" (or everywoman) protagonist who does exactly what the audience would do in the same situation is interesting only if she finds herself in truly extraordinary circumstances -- and even then, a more unusual character is usually more compelling.

  • People who aren't writers themselves can often give incredibly useful feedback, because (a) they're human beings with feelings, just like your characters, and (b) they see movies.

  • When you tell yourself that a script will be easy to write, what you're actually saying is that it will be easy to write badly.

  • The great thing about aspiring to be a professional screenwriter is that you already get to do the exact same thing that the pros do. Nothing's stopping you from writing a movie that would cost $250 million to produce. Aspiring directors sure don't have that luxury.

  • Lots of movies and scripts fail because the tone is inconsistent. And lots of movies and scripts succeed in spite of all kinds of other problems because the tone is perfect.

  • A good action scene is not one in which a lot of cool things happen; it's one in which the audience legitimately worries that the good guys will lose.

  • Never be afraid to think bigger. You want people to read your script and imagine a movie on a fifty-foot screen, not a webisode on an iPhone.

  • If you find that you're forced to suck all the fun out of your premise simply for the sake of adhering to logic and "rules," then you're doing it wrong. A great premise that is well-serviced by the story and characters is the brass ring of screenwriting. If you can pull that off, nobody's going to notice whether you've broken a few "rules."

  • And yes, the word "rules" should always be in quotes when it comes to screenwriting.

That's about all I can think of for now. ("For now" being the last few weeks that I've worked on and off on this list.) Happy new year and happy writing!

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