Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Managing myself

I have neither an agent nor a manager, so I don't have any firsthand experience working with either one, but I believe I have a pretty decent grasp of the difference between the two roles. An agent finds you work that's as frequent and lucrative as possible, while a manager is more focused on steering you toward the projects that are right for you and your career. These days I find myself spending a lot of time and energy doing the latter. Putting together a decent script takes me months -- sometimes a few, sometimes several -- and I want to have something significant to show for that kind of temporal investment. I want a solid addition to my portfolio, something that really helps to sell me as a writer. So I have to choose the right thing to write. I have to be my own manager.

Here are some of the criteria I use in determining whether an idea is worth my time to develop:

1. Is the idea high-concept; i.e., easily pitchable?

No, this is not me happily internalizing the marketing-driven world of today's studio system. I just want to make sure that people will read what I write, and I'm not exactly a known quantity in Hollywood (despite having 136 followers on Twitter, at least half of whom are not spam-bots!). But if I can sum up the appeal of the script in a zippy logline, then a stranger in a position of power just might deign to pick it up. To quote one of my favorite movies, these are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

2. Can I actually pull it off?

If coming up with a script that fit criterion #1 above were all it took, then L.A. would be stuffed to the gills with millionaire scribes. Great high-concept ideas are a dime a dozen; people who can execute those ideas are rich. A humanoid dinosaur and a supermodel travel back in time to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I would write that if I thought I could pull it off, because why not? Someone's going to read that script if it comes across their desk. But I don't think I have the chops.

Managers pride themselves on knowing their clients' creative strengths and weaknesses. As my own manager, I have to know mine. There are certain types of characters, certain types of scenes, certain types of plots that I know I can do well. I'm good at snappy dialogue and unexpected injections of humor. I can write a passable action scene, but I'm better at building and sustaining tension. These are all major considerations in the kind of script I choose to write.

3. Does the idea of writing this excite me?

This is a no-brainer, and should be for anyone writing a spec. If you have the power to choose what you write, choose something that really sparks your interest and makes you look forward to sitting down at the computer. Even the scripts that most ignite your passions will cause you pain and frustration at some point (if not many points), so it's essential to find a project that makes all that suffering worthwhile.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The right details

Here's a sample scene.


Dim lighting from four overhead incandescent bulbs. Another six are burned out. The walls are brick and concrete; three crooked nails are hammered into the far side, about five feet up. Nine metal and vinyl stools are positioned against the bar, and thirteen tall, faded oak tables with three barstools each are staggered around the rest of the interior. The bar itself is polished mahogany, chipped away in places. The wall behind the bar is a mirror with protruding glass shelves, holding the following bottles of liquor (left to right): Dewar's, Johnnie Walker Red, Johnnie Walker Blue, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Captain Morgan, Bacardi Gold, Bacardi Silver, Appleton Estate...

Okay, that's enough. Clearly, that's not how you write a script you want anyone to read. Unless it's animation! Then, from what I hear, you have to write it that way; otherwise, the animators won't know they need to draw all those things. Or, if the entire movie takes place in that bar, you could probably get away with that level of detail. But if you're writing a normal cinematic scene and you want to put the reader inside this location, this is not the way to do it. You need details, yes, but they need to be the right details.

So what are the right details? In my opinion, they're the details that convey (a) something distinguishing and (b) something emotional. Looking at the bloated description at the top of the page, the list of alcohols on display doesn't fit either of those criteria. You'd find most of those at any bar in America, from the Bel Air Hotel to an airport in Fort Lauderdale. And there's little emotional impact to be mined from rattling off a list of common boozes. On the other hand, the description of the lighting is much closer to the mark, if not exactly Oscar-worthy. The fact that more than half the bulbs are burned out signals that the place might not be all that well taken care of; might not be clean; might not be safe. Suppose our protagonist is a pre-teen girl and she has to walk into this bar alone, late at night. With that one brief sentence of description, we're starting to trigger emotional reactions in the reader. This place is no TGI Friday's. Something bad might happen.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Changing things up

The start of a new year is a natural time to make some changes, so I'm going to do that. I've been writing this blog since early 2008, and it's been a great opportunity to put down in print a lot of principles that have crystallized for me in the course of my development as a writer. (That was my mission statement, after all.)

But as time goes by, I find I'm devoting less energy to learning and more to applying what I've learned. Principles occur to me less often, and exceptions to the principles I've already learned occur to me more often. As a result, when I sit down to write a post about some basic tenet of screenwriting, I usually end up putting it on the back burner or discarding it all together, because I've already started mentally poking holes in it. And thus I've ended up with a whole lot of unfinished mini-essays on all sorts of topics. I only published eight posts in all of 2010, but I probably started three times that many; I just couldn't quite bring them off.

So I think I'm done with the didactic stuff for the time being. (The post below was kind of my last hurrah in terms of passing on tips and lessons.) But I'm not done with this blog. To the contrary: I'd like to expand it to include a wider variety of topics on movies, TV, books, L.A., and entertainment in general. I'd like to write about some of these things without forcing myself to tie them directly to lessons about screenwriting.

Anyway, we'll see how that goes.

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!