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.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Brilliance Toward a Few Steps by James K. Shea

Once again, digging around and found a great article. Can't remember where it came from, but it's some good info from James K. Shea.

Hollywood literary agents talk in the shorthand of the business when they describe scripts. Either they're "brilliant"… or "they suck." There is no middle ground. Screenplays that are "okay," or "not bad" or "have potential" really fall under the category of "they suck. Because of the staggering cost of a film today, Hollywood is only interested in the "home run," the potential blockbuster, the screenplay that all agree seems Brilliant.

The dictionary definition of "Brilliant" uses key words and phrases such as: "striking," "distinctive," and "distinguished by unusual mental keenness." In writing it relates to a concept that is unique, a story that captivates emotionally, and a superbly crafted script.

This article presupposes that you have reached a level of craftsmanship where writing aspects such as structure, conflict, setting, plot, multi-dimensional characters, and scripts, individualizing dialogue that reflects those characters are all second nature to you.

Following are some steps that may help you elevate your script in the areas of emotion and uniqueness.


The purpose of writing is to communicate. The purpose of writing fiction is to communicate emotion. There are other forms of writing - statistical, informational, instructional - where emotion plays no part. But for fiction emotion is the key.

It is possible to build emotion into your premise, your story, and conceivably into your plot. But far and away the easier single area to generate emotion is with your characters.

The character's passion for his goal is one of the most engaging elements that causes an audience to care. Add to this his internal struggle, and you have humanized your character. Then every obstacle you place in his path will move, intrigue, and captivate your audience. Accomplish this and you're well on your way to "brilliant."

The passion can be as obvious as Dorothy's desire to get back to Kansas, or a John Wayne-style "We're not giving up this island." It can be the catalyst that incites the story as in Jimmy Stewart's decision to commit suicide at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life - or as subtle as in the seething understatement of Casablanca.

Show me any good movie and I'll show you a protagonist who exudes anger at some point and fear at another. Anger demonstrates his passion, fear his humanity - both qualities we can identify with and admire. If your script fails to grab the audience emotionally, you've missed the boat.


An excellent writing instructor once said the key phrase to what ever produced ultimately wants is: Amaze me! Th3e foundation of "amaze me" is creating something unique.

Syd Field says in his book Four Screenplays (Dell Books, 1994), "Make the impossible plausible." If you can do this, you are creating the unique.

The most valuable (and most difficult) tool for creating the unique is:

The Tenth Level of Solution

We all write from our subconscious. The subconscious takes thoughts and ideas it has heard, observed or acquired, and twists them around to offer new suggestions in the form of thoughts. But these thoughts are often based on material we have recently seen and therefore they seem derivative. How do we break this cycle to create unique and original stories?

If a writer has a problem of any kind with his/her script (especially the premise), make a list of 10 solutions to the problem. The first three or four will tend to be taken from shows seen in the past few months or years. Around solution number five, you will start to be original, and by number ten, it may b genius. Obviously, coming up with ten solutions to a problem will take some strenuous thinking, but maybe that's what "brilliant" is all about.

We are all basically lazy, it's part of being human. Most people are more at ease doing things they are familiar with. We know the things within our comfort zone. But comfort can be a curse - it limits the writer to the mundane.

Success lies beyond the comfort zone. It lies in risking the unknown; that's the only place you will find the unique.

But don't take a blank sheet of paper, listing numbers one to 10 down the left hand column. This is more than just a bit intimidating, this is instantly overwhelming.

Merely list number one, and write down a solution. Anyone can find one solution. It's okay if the first one stinks, this is just a beginning. Only when it is finished write the number two, and create your second answer. This "one at a time" process is less intimidating and can jump-start your creativity. Do you have to go all the way to number 10 What if seven or eight is great? Use it! This process is a tool to stimulate your creativity. Be committed to excellence in your writing, not obsessed with procedure.

An aside that dove-tails with this concept: An executive I know said it usually takes a writer five or six scripts before they begin creating worthwhile material. It's partly the learning process, and mastering your craft, but it's also getting beyond the derivative script and into the unique.

Programming Subconscious Response

Another technique used successfully is to pin-point a specific problem and study it from as many aspects as possible. Program your subconscious to come up with a solution within a specified time - say the next morning.

The French Mathematician Henri Poincare, in his treatise Science And Method, tells of being stumped on a math problem. He analyzed it from every aspect, but could not come up with an answer. He put the problem aside and went for a walk, "my mind was preoccupied with very different matters." When he returned to the problem, the solution suddenly flashed before him. He used this process repeatedly throughout his brilliant career.

Again, here are the three key steps:
1. Analyze all aspects of the problem.
2. Get your mind totally off the problem and, if possible, actively engage your mind in an unrelated subject.
3. Focus again on the original problem, and the solution will appear in a flash of inspiration.

Twists and Surprises

One of the most consistently brilliant screenwriters in America is William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, The Ghost and The Darkness, [which contains the quintessential dream sequence], Marathon Man, and many more). He is also the author of one of the most often quoted books on motion pictures and writing, Adventures in The Screen Trade (Warner Books, 1994).

One of my favorite techniques comes from him. In essence he says set up a situation, look for the most obvious solution, then go in the exact opposite direction. Never give them what they can predict. Always find a twist to surprise them. If you must give them what they expected, i.e. "Boy meets Girl" give it to them in a way they would never expect.

Writing From A Parallel Universe

John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolkit (Silman-James Press, 1994), gave this advice to members of the "Scriptwriters Network" in an article in their newsletter. Suppose you've painted yourself into a corner. There is no possible solution to the problem you've created within the limits of our universe.

A possible method of finding the solution is to approach it from an Alternate universe, where our limitations don't apply. Viewed from a limitless universe, do new solutions present themselves? Can you then rewrite your set-up to allow some manner of loop-hole that permits this new solution in our universe?


Several writing instructors have stressed the value of "Brainstorming." This means taking an idea and exploring it, twisting it, randomly looking for new aspects of it, flipping it over, looking at it upside down, inside out, etc.

The first script that I wrote which won a contest was the brainstorming of a treatment that I had sold years before.

Background: I wanted to make my villains stronger, so I took a class called Scream Writing by Alan Ormsby, who had just written the modernization of the old horror classic Cat. In the class, each student was to write a horror premise.

The premise I came up with was that a rogue army office needs to hide some nerve gas he had been ordered to destroy. He sends a truckload to a remote station in the piney-backwoods of New England. A forest fire breaks out, the truck topples over and the combination of pine smoke and nerve gas turns the soldiers into flesh-eating monsters. If you have any taste at all, this premise will make you gag.

Now, just over the hill, is the closing week of a girl's summer camp. So you have young girls in jeopardy from both the forest fire and flesh-eating monsters. Because of the execution of the materiel I was able to sell this, in treatment form, to a producer.

Several years later, I took David S. Freeman's class, "Beyond Structure." He discussed ways of brainstorming, by reversing the gender of the lead(s), changing the location, the time period, etc.

During the class I realized, "Wait a minute, I know this odd aspect of nature that has never been explored on film. Why not use it to create a new monster, and take the kids in jeopardy (from the summer camp story) and put them in outer space in the future?"

The result is an entirely new script, Terraformed, based on a concept that was good enough to sell, plus a new monster, new arena, and sufficient twists to make it completely original.

Brainstorming is readily found throughout the film industry. West Side Story is a modernization of Romeo & Juliet, Outland, took High Noon into outer space. Independence Day is a modernization of War of The Worlds, with a brilliant twist of substituting a computer virus for the original bacterial virus.

Most recently, Disney's A Bug's Life was a comedic retelling of the Magnificent Seven which in turn was a westernization of the Japanese film The Seven Samurai. In a Bug's Life, instead of seven warriors, circus bugs are mistaken for warriors. This comedic twist on the original story is a perfect example of brainstorming.

Strengthening Your Female Characters

One of the judges of a contest was discussing a script with me. Since all the scripts in the contest are read blind, he didn't know I was the author. He felt sure this script was written by a female. When I asked why, he said "Because the female characters are so well written." I couldn't ask for a nicer compliment.

This is especially important to me, because when I first started writing female characters, they merely served the plot, and were usually so dumb they walked into walls.

Where, then, were the shifts to create well written females? The first shift I'm aware of came when I had my females wanting to support the lead in achieving his goals, and being the best that he can be.

This hasn't been discussed a lot, but I think this may be a universal desire among males, to have a woman support his dreams. This is seen in The King and I, My Cousin Vinny and most recently in As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson's line, "You make me want to be a better man."

The next shift came from a book called The Secrets of Action Screenwriting (self-published) by William C. Martell. He pointed out that the days of women standing around and saying "oh! Oh! Oh1" while their boyfriends are in the middle of a fight to save them are now ancient history. Today's woman wants to be an equal partner, and damn well finds a way to help. The females in my scripts are very much active, aggressive, supportive "buddies."

Objectives & Subtext

Every principal character, male or female, must have an objective, a goal to strive for in each and every scene. The clash of those goals creates conflict, the heart of both drama and comedy. Optimally, you have created those objectives in such a way that for social reasons, fear of rejection, embarrassment, or whatever, they cannot be discussed openly.

When characters are driven by an objective they can't discussed openly, you have automatically generated subtext. Subtext eliminates boring "on-the-nose" dialogue where characters say exactly what they mean. It is the single richest area for enhancing both your scene work and dialogue. For the best example of this, rent the Academy Award winning Sense and Sensibility. It is wall-to-wall subtext.

The Masked Avenger

Many years ago, Johnny Hart, the author of B. C. Comics, added a character to his strip that I believe was called The Masked Avenger. It was just one of his ordinary caveman characters, but when the moon was up, he put on a cape and mask, and was capable of doing extraordinary things.
One sunny day the somewhat klutzy caveman was playing golf. It was the 18th green and if he sank this putt, it would be his best score ever. He squared off to the golf ball, but the pressure became intense. His hands began to shake and his knees began to wobble uncontrollably.

Then he had an idea. He ducked behind a tree, waited for the moon to come up, approached the ball as The Masked Avenger, and confidently sank the putt!

While the comic strip was done in pure fun, I believe we all have The Masked Avenger within us. We all have the ability, under pressure, to go beyond our own fears and limitations.

It's almost as if we asked ourselves, "How would I solve this if I were a Pro?" Maybe we substitute our favorite author. "How would I solve this if I were William Goldman, or Shane Black, or whoever?" We then drag ourselves beyond our own limitations.

On Subtlety

A while back there was a television tribute to the great writer-director Billy Wilder. Walter Matthau, who had worked in many Wilder films, was one of the guest speakers. It seems he was discussing a part with Billy, and said, "But there are subtleties in acting." To which Wilder responded, "Of course there are subtleties, just make them obvious!"

Examples of doing it well are difficult to see, because when it's done right, even blatantly, it blends in and seems natural. Let's suppose two devout church women, Sara and Mary, are talking at a social tea. Sarah whispers that one of the parish women is having an affair. If Mary's reaction is to look down and quietly whisper, "Are you sure?" this subtle reaction could be interpreted as her concern over the reputation of the congregation.

However, if Mary's reaction is to almost spill her tea, deliberately avoid Sarah's look, then struggle, searching for the right words before whispering, "Do you have any evidence?", it should be obvious to the reader/audience that Mary is experiencing some guilt. Especially when Sarah says, "It's Alice Smith," and Mary giggles in relief.

Okay, this example goes beyond natural and into the comedic, but the point holds true. Just remember the words of Billy Wilder.

There are countless aspects to writing a great script, and these seemingly disparate elements are merely facets, the awareness of which may enhance your overall writing and possibly lead you a few steps closer to Brilliance.



Post a Comment

<< Home