Writing On Spec

An award caliber procrastinator discovers a new and dangerous pursuit to keep him from actually writing another script. Why another Blog? I love to talk screenwriting. I love to talk story. I live in Richmond, VA. It's almost easier to get produced than find another screenwriter here. We are the anti-LA.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Story Told Me To

So I've been reading an interesting book lately (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall). It's not so much how to write stories but more about how stories impact us and why they're important to us. I've been stuck in a funk the last few years because it really seems pointless to write a new script. I mean, the stories have been told before and if you're writing with a purpose - so few are actually listening that it just seemed - well - pointless to even waste my time. However, after discovering what Jonathan Gottschall has found (through a lot of research I didn't have to do) is that I'm totally wrong (at least about people listening). It seems that as a species, humans consume stories with such voracity that we just can't get enough. In addition, we are so attuned to story that we almost can't help but become entranced and affected by a good story and it's message. I'm one of those folks that will sit down to analyse a movie and I'm 100% into it for 5-10 minutes and then I realize after 45-60 minutes I've gotten totally wrapped up in the movie and haven't analyzed a thing. It's extremely difficult. To do it I have to analyze a movie scene by scene with a laptop or paper/pencil in front of me. I can't just, for instance, watch a movie to find the inciting incident and major breaks. I get too enthralled in the movie and then it's over. Thus, I can believe Gottschall when he says that it's more than just me who gets wrapped up in stories and forgets about everything else. In addition, these stories - and their lessons - do impact us. After showing a short film to a group of people, they were questioned on specific subjects afterwards and their answers were shaped by the content of the film. Not totally out of their character, and not permanently, but enough that it shows stories have a real world impact on us. A film that made an impact on me when I was younger is Wall Street. Not the "greed is good" part, but the line from Martin Sheen Charlie in the elevator when he explains how he should have something to show for his work at the end of the day. It was a message from Oliver Stone that has stuck with me to this day. So if you're writing something now. Have something to say, for while Eric Clapton laments "if I could change the world", we now have proof that we can change the world - even if it's one person at a time.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The New Screenwriter

There are always new screenwriters. It's inevitable. We see a bad movie and can't help but think "I could do better than that!". I'm not sure what makes us think that but we do. When was the last time you saw any other profession executed imperfectly and your first thought was "I could do better than that?" Is it just that we suspect people in the movies make a ton of money and, therefore, it's prize worth trying for since we believe our product could justify that large paycheck. Why is it always we could write a better movie? Why not direct one? Or produce one? Screenwriting is a profession. People work really hard to hone their craft. They may be first timers, but most have some sort of applicable education to back up their work. Many have been avid film/movie buffs since childhood. And yet, here we go thinking that with no education, no previous film study and on a whim, we can crank out a script on a par with a professional with years of experience. I saw a humorous post recently. I've finished my first script and am thinking about a rewrite. What should I do next? First script? I'd imagine you could rewrite it several times, then put it on the shelf or in a drawer and forget about it. Start a second script. Perhaps after several scripts you could send one out to an agent. But the first? It's what makes the business so cluttered. The fact that so many would be writers are sending off these first scripts with hopes of striking it rich. One of the best things a new screenwriter can do is try and join a group. Preferably a screenwriter's group, so they can get some honest feedback up front and not get their hopes up for those early drafts. I'm not ruling out writers having talent and succeeding with first scripts - but I'd bet that people would be more interested in their writing and offer them assignments rather than the submitted script. There is more to writing a script than just hammering out a plot and tying up the loose ends. But I'll save that rant for next time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

But I Thought I Was Unique?

So I'm listening to Sam and Jim's podcast (yeah, it's really old) and they were talking about how what Hollywood wants is the same but different and how that different piece is your unique point of view.

I've heard it and read it a million times. There isn't any new stories (and there aren't) it's the new *unique* slant that you put on it that makes it fresh. It's what we're all told Hollywood is looking for and we just take it and run with it. Instead, we should be asking ourselves exactly what does that mean?

Unique means what? Let's see what dictionary.com has to say:

1. existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics: a unique copy of an ancient manuscript.
2. having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable: Bach was unique in his handling of counterpoint.
3. limited in occurrence to a given class, situation, or area: a species unique to Australia.
4. limited to a single outcome or result; without alternative possibilities: Certain types of problems have unique solutions.
5. not typical; unusual: She has a very unique smile.
6. the embodiment of unique characteristics; the only specimen of a given kind: The unique is also the improbable.

Well, let's really think about what that word means *together* with what it is we're trying to achieve as storytellers.

As a storyteller you are trying to engage mass audiences. The most effective stories do what? Anybody? Right - they make the audience feel like they have something in common with the main character. A bond. Something that's (is it coming to you yet?) - something that's definitely not unique.

While I'm sure there are exceptions all over the place, I believe this sort of language stems from people that do not understand writing and are reaching for words to communicate what they want - and to try and verbalize what it is they believe is missing in what they're reading.

What Hollywood sees is a lot of copying of films that have already been created. People tap into the universal consciousness and write the first thing that comes into their heads and it just rings bells for anybody who reads it. Not knowing what's at fault, you get vague feedback that doesn't really explain the problems with the writing.

Then take these same people and they pass onto the folks sending them material that they want something the same but different. Teachers try and verbalize what that means and come to terms with the only thing that's really different from story to story and that's the order of the words put on the page. It's the writer's own unique habit of the order of their words. We're all subject to the rules of grammar, but we have our idiosyncrasies of speech and this along with the well crafted story are what make stories different from one another.

What they are is very clear about just how un-unique we all are from one another when it all boils down to it. The most compelling story you can write is one that resonates with the most people.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Please don't cry...no, really. Don't.

So reading through another script and a character is chopping veggies and crying at the sink. What's wrong with this scene is that I have no emotional tie to the action in the scene. I didn't know the deceased (why the person is crying), there is no association to the chore of chopping veggies and I've just met this new character.

This is wasted writing because what you want is for the reader to cry, not the characters. The most powerful scenes you will find are those where the character is the last to cry and the audience is the first. However, for this to happen you have to set it up.

A couple quick examples that stick out for me. Return to Me is a good example of a quick setup. Shows the couple as a really great pair. Soul mates kind of love - in sync, happy and loving life. A few scenes later and the husband's life has been shattered - a car accident and his wife is dead. You have the same location (the house) and their dog who is obviously looking for the wife - not expecting him home alone. Although we all know (if we think about it) that the dog would not react this way, we are manipulated because of what we know - we're leaping ahead in the story because we're putting ourselves there. So, the dog misses her, his world is shattered, he's been in shock and now he's starting to come to terms with what's happened. At this point, the audience is probably already in tears (yeah, it's the dog without a doubt). It's at this point that he can break down - after the audience should have.

This scene works because it's been setup clearly and because the audience has the necessary knowledge the understand the ramifications and to feel for the characters. It's a great story that can do this in less than 10 pages.

The second example is from a television show - Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It's a long, long setup - years really - but the payoff has a very human touch point. The ill fated lovers (Buffy & Angel) have decided to be together. Screw the rest of the world, they'll just be in love. Cut to Angel finding out that if they do that, not only will Buffy die, but the world will go to Hell. Their love is just not meant to be. Buffy knows nothing about this - hint: this is the writers letting the audience in on the big secret before the character (Buffy). The other shoe that is about to drop is when he has to tell her that they have to resume their old lives and cannot be together. The kicker is that he doesn't tell her until their moment is up. One minute until everything returns to normal and their perfect world turns to crap again.

Here is where the audience feels it before the character. They know what's coming - they know there's only a minute left, they know he has to tell her - the whole scene rests on the actor's not crying before us. She does a great job as she's told that fate has screwed them both and she only has one minute left. What this says to the audience is "how would you feel if your perfect world was about to end in one minute? How would you feel?"

Like the first example, it plays well, not only because of the actors but because of the setup given to the audience before the moment takes place.

Thus, next time you think a character needs to cry, think about if your audience will be crying before you or after you. If it's afterward, cut it and try again or look for where and how you need to set the story events up to have the audience ahead of you.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Come Fish Travel in Schools, But They're Not Learning?

I was talking with friends tonight about writers and one of them brought up a valid point: why don't some writer's learn? I mean, in the cases where you're a writer lucky enough to have a group of earnest screenwriters critique your work, why do you assume they're out to attack you and not help you improve? Why would you come back if you thought that way?

All too often a writer puts some thing important to them on paper and then it becomes magically sacred. Lord knows how, we ALL know the first draft of anything is shit, right? Hemingway. Really, how can you go wrong with advice from somebody like him? But sure enough, somebody serves up 30 pages of dung and then expects the group to regale their power of the English language and their story prowess.

For the most part, writer's groups are made up of non-published writers. You have a few that are professional writing groups, but when it comes to Screenwriting, there just are more people interested in the art than succeeding at it. Thus, odds are, you're not writing stuff that's good enough to sell... yet. Maybe you will later, but right now, you're learning. You have to put in your time to learn the craft. If you belong to a writer's group, it's a great start. Now, to take advantage of that, actually listen to what people have to say about your work. Much of what you hear will be "what if you...?" While it's all probably earnest and well meaning, much of it is only their take on the material. What you need to pay attention to is when glaring stuff gets repeated, "the dialogue is too long and on the nose", "I don't know what your story is about... and I'm at page 20". Stuff like that needs to make an impression on you.

With that kind of honest information, you can get to work and look at story construction. What kind of beats do you need to hit? And when? Do all of us fellow writer's group members a favor and learn from your critique. We take the time to read your work and to comment on it, so the least you can do is not do the same crap over and over again. I don't care if I see the same work again, but I really don't want to see script after script with long, on the nose, unwieldy dialogue.

And what is it about new screenwriters that they don't read? I'll admit, I'm not an uber film buff. I love film and writing, I love the written word and the power it holds, but I don't know all the old writers and what their impacts have been on the field of screenwriting. I can appreciate those that do, but it's not for me. What we all should do though is look at the nuts and bolts of the art/craft we've chosen. Reading scripts by established writers is, bar none, the best way to get a feel for writing a script. You learn the way dialogue sounds. You learn what a page should look like with dialogue and narration. You get an idea of how fast connections need to be made between the writer and the reader. And all it takes is a little time to read a script.

I can remember not so many years ago when you could only get a script by photo copying it, and that meant you had to get your hands on an actual copy. These days there are script sites that have hundreds of scripts, formatted correctly, for you to download and read or even print and read.

So many people are trying to figure out ways to get around the reader. The person they envision as their guardian to the promised land. Well, you should put yourselves in the shoes of said reader. Go ahead and read 15 scripts in a week (not a day or a weekend like they do). I'll even say make it easier and read scripts of produced movies. It's even better if you haven't seen the film. Then you can go out afterward and rent the movie and compare the script you read to the final product. Is it any different?

The ultimate challenge is to find yourself one of these script sites for new writers that publishes their full script or one that offers you a critique for you critiquing another script. The ultimate in punishment is to have to read through an entire crappy script. A script where some writer has probably heard all the comments you will scream to yourself as you read, yet, for some reason, is just not learning.

So do us all a favor, from fellow writer's group member, to reader, to producer and anybody involved in the industry or love of Screenwriting. When you get the same comments from multiple people, pay attention and learn. Change what you're doing and get better. Not only can it make you a better writer, but it will help you compete with your real ultimate enemy - the kid with natural story telling talent and nothing but free time :)


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Stupid Writers

Wow... we sure are a dumb lot. How on earth could we have predicted Netflix & Blockbuster streaming stuff over the internet. Hulu now airing re-broadcasts of multiple shows and some studios even signing exclusivity contracts to have them do it.

Then you have Joss Whedon & his internet smash Dr. Horrible.

Sheesh. Thank goodness the WGA stuck it out.


Friday, April 03, 2009

It All Comes Full Circle

So, over at Unknown Screenwriter, I was feeling rather maudlin and posted "Why Write". To some degree, it's something I've been feeling for some time. Just about everything has been done, probably done to death, and usually by a more talented individual than myself, so why write? If I'm trying to pass on some wisdom that I may have learned (perhaps something like Family Man - that says family and love is more important or more fulfilling than work), well (I thought) nobody's listening. I'm not trying to say that I'm a genius or overly wise, but some of the simple stuff you figure you should be able to pass on. However, I'm failing. I've failed to be surprised by the greed of corporations or the employees that work at the top. I've failed to be surprised by the seemingly idiotic decisions that are made from the top while people on the bottom just stare wide-eyed in stark amazement that the decision was made (because it's so ludicrous).

But I digress. Why write? Well, after watching Storytellers, it really did become apparent. For myself. As I thought about that, I recalled the long given advice from scores of writers that I'd read over the years. Write for yourself. That's the advice. Because, you see, if you can't please yourself, how can you expect to please anybody else? If it's boring you, good lord, you can be sure it's boring others. If it's a subject or story you are compelled or excited to tell, then it should be able to keep you inspired long enough to go through those long many drafts to get it into condition that somebody other than mom and dad can stand it.

I'm also coming to the conclusion that life is short. When you're gone, you may have a legacy, but it's rare that your legacy is one that lasts past your children. We have history, but that's not the same as art and very few of us are lucky enough to produce art that perseveres for over a decade, let alone a century or longer.

So when you write, be selfish - write for yourself, write those stories that put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. Scare yourself. Surely there is somebody out there just like you thinking "if only somebody would write something that moves me". There's no time like the present. Don't wait. Before you realize it, time will be gone and instead of thinking "I wonder when I'll move out to Hollywood" you start thinking "I hope the rumors that Hollywood will buy a good story no matter how old the writer is are true".

Now go write!


Friday, March 13, 2009

Who Give's A Damn About the Writer Anyway?

Well, I'll be damned (debatable). I posed the question over on Unk's forum "who is your favorite writer and why?" Wouldn't you know it. Only a couple responses and neither could list a favorite writer. Let this not be condemnation of them at all. I just find it interesting that they couldn't list one. Obviously, I have not debated if they notice the writers of the films they watch or anything else.

I may have mentioned before (certainly to my friends) that who makes a movie is integral to me in my decision to actually watch it. What better criteria for knowing if you might enjoy a film than checking to see who wrote and directed it? They are the major focal points of the work. The writer's original input and the director's interpretation of those words. It doesn't take long to see that directors often have a type or a certain type of story they direct mostly. Is a Gus Van Sant film different than a Michael Bay film? I think you'd be hard pressed to confuse the two. How about Shane Black vs Lawrence Kasden? Quentin Tarrantino vs Ron Bass? I can spot Aaron Sorkin at work a mile away.

I've been playing guitar for years and one of the most frequent things you hear from musicians is the influence of other musicians they either emulated or respected. I thought it was the same in the writing world - lord knows, I respect and admire quite a few writers. Not just any writer. While some are good, some are really good, some just really hit home for me. Either the theme, stories or just the order they choose to put their words on the page. It's all a conscious decision on their part and how can you not be drawn to those very choices if you are trying to do the same thing?

Is screenwriting so ill respected that it's thought of as something a monkey can do? Reading the beginning of Unforgiven is so easy. Reading the final court scene in A Few Good Men is riviting. Are writers not held in high esteem even by fellow writers? I can't believe it.

To those few out there that may be reading - let me know if you have a favorite writer and why?


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Checking in...

It's been awhile. Can't say that I haven't been shamed into writing due to Shawna's threat to remove all those that don't post regularly (over at www.shoutingintothewind.com). However, writing is writing and lately I've felt less like writing and more like doing something drastic. Thankfully, I've been able to submerge myself in copious amounts of old television shows until the mood has passed.

Basically, I'm one of the many who was forced to take a pay cut to keep my job, only to discover that our illustrious CEO has raked in somewhere upwards of $50 million over the last three years (so while I just lost the last 5 years of raises, he'll be fine). Now, I know the way it goes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer - you need money to make money, the list goes on, but never do I feel that the poor and middle class have been as publicly defrocked as in the recent past. The media and information outlets have become so ubiquitous that you can swing a dead cat without stumbling across some form of media device that can spout the most current information available on whomever or whatever is going on in the world.

Thus when all this frustration bubbled up and I began ranting to my wife about economics, the workforce, CEO's and the like I was surprised at the words that sprang to mind. I'm mad as hell... and I'm not going to take it. Huh. It struck a chord immediately. This is going around again. I know Paddy was a gifted writer, but I don't for a minute think the emotions from that film were just made up. So you writers out there with more dedication (read less family matters) than me should take a hint from the times and talk about some frustration. 'Cause let me tell you, there is lots of frustration in this country right now. How is it that good, honest people are losing their houses? Can't feed their family? Good workers losing their jobs when executives are raping the companies? I heard on the news that the billions in taxes that saved the financial businesses are being used to help the wealthy avoid paying taxes (tax shelters abroad). There is an estimate that folks have avoided something like 100 billion in tax revenue.

Now don't get me wrong - I don't believe all the wealthy are bastards, but it does seem that those self-serving upstarts of the 80's are just killing our country and making it hard for everyone without a second thought to anybody else.

Stories about the little guy winning, about justice being served - heck, perhaps a remake of Falling Down? Only this time, he'll be getting away with it because we're tired of seeing the downtrodden guy get screwed. Who knows.

Maybe next time I'll have some specific writing advice, but for now, it's think about the people you're around every day, think about the people you see on the news and how they're feeling. Take the pulse of the people and see if you can figure out what they want to hear, then provide it.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Are You Sure?

So, it's been so long since I last posted, I'm starting to get that guilty feeling I get when I haven't called my parents in too long. While I often think about posting, when I consider the absolute downpour of postings that Unk is posting over at the Unknown Screenwriter, I find little else to add to his encyclopedic tomb.

Well, in reading this months (or next months, depending on if you subscribe or not) Script magazine, I saw where Justin Theroux (writer or co-writer of Tropic Thunder) is being offered the writing job of Iron Man 2.

My first thought was, "wow, I wouldn't want to be responsible for that." Which quickly led me to think, "what kind of loser doesn't want Iron Man 2?" See, on one hand, it's a lot of responsibility. If it tanks, it's your fault (although, considering we are just writers, I guess there isn't really that much at risk). On the other, what an incredible opportunity! Justin has been acting for some time, but Tropic is his only screen credit for writing thus far.

Something I believe many budding screenwriters don't consider is the writing for hire market. While you may never sell your script, you might get offered writing assignments based of what others like about your writing (just one more of the many reasons you *must* appear to be professional on the page and any vocal or visual appearances).

The question you have to ask yourself is: "If I was offered a writing assignment to write a major subject, would I take it?" Think about your favorite movie and imagine having to write a sequel - or a prequel. Could you? or something you consider too big - another Indy or Star Wars script. The writers of the last X-Men movie were thrilled and scared of the prospect. Could they do the job and have it live up to fans expectations? There are times when you will be faced with what appears to be a tremendous opportunity. Where you are being plucked from the crowd and given the chance to prove yourself and your talents. At these times, I recommend you remember that outside of things like rocket science and brain surgery, most people can do most things. Have confidence in yourself and the talent that put you in that new position and go for it. For nothing can be worse than remembering that when given what you wanted, you never even tried.