Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for February, 2011

Preparing to Write

Personal techniques that prepare me before writing FADE IN:

Distractions come in all forms...

We all have different formulas and strategies for turning out vague ideas into well structured plot lines before we start pecking away at the keys. Some are pretty common; the outline, the treatment, the character bios, the list goes on.

After two years of continuous screenwriting, Ive developed some techniques of my own for organizing my ideas that I think may be worth sharing. No matter your style, however, I think it’s important to try new systems and finding the ones that work for you.


I personally loath writing outlines as a means of preparation. I find them to be too rigid and limiting. To solve this problem, I adapted the typical outline format into a more fluid system that I’ve found works pretty well. What I do is think of all the plot points for my main story line. I then write them all on individual notecards and pin them to a giant cork board on my wall. As the story takes shape, I move the notecards around, messing up the order as needed to fit certain plot points into the story the best way possible. When the subplots are developed I color code each of them and write them on smaller note cards. I pin them where I think they belong in relation to the main plot, but as before I usually shuffle them around according to how the story flows in my mind. I highly recognize this technique. Its a great way to visualize the progression of your story, and if you ever get stuck anywhere in your writing you can just go stare at your wall and feel like your being productive…


In my last script, one that dealt with a lot of internal struggle, I was having a hard time expressing my character’s emotions on the page. In an effort to solve this problem I devised a pretty useful method for externalizing internal emotions and conflict. I made a four column chart. The Columns are; “Scene” “character” “emotion” “externalization.” Basically what I do is pin point what my characters are feeling in each scene and come up with a physical representation of that emotion. This cuts down significantly on on-the-nose dialogue and does a lot in terms of bringing your characters to life on the page. It’s not necessary for all scripts, but if you’re having trouble with expression of internal conflict I would recommend giving this a shot.


My most recent technique came at the recommendation of my professor. While trying to sustain conflict through your second act, it is common for your writing to plateau with a lack of progression. To solve this issue, my professor suggested looking at a script in 15 page increments and recognizing what changes in each segment. I took this idea and developed another chart. It consists of a column for each plot line. Within each 15-page segment I wrote what changes in the status of each plot line, and what actions demonstrate that change. This technique proved very beneficial in maintaining conflict, as well as making sure that none of the subplots died out, or lost relevancy to the main plot line.

So these are just a few of the ways I work out the story that is floating through my chaotic brain, before I try and develop it within the script. Again, everyone works differently, but I have definitely benefitted from experimentation with other writer’s methods, and I strongly suggest that everyone do the same.

I would love to hear some of your own techniques for preparing yourself for the writing phase.



Why do we love Top Gun?

The little things that saved the movie in a big way.

A dynamic hard at work...

As screenwriters, we are trained to create a quality script through rich subtext, minimal exposition, relatable characters, and a well-structured plot line. So why is it that I can sit and watch a movie like Top Gun, which is filled with on the nose dialogue, heavy expositional lines, and an unlikable protagonist, yet still find it incredibly entertaining?

Well the easy answer is that years of film studies classes haven’t yet paid off when it comes to good old popcorn movies. While this may very well be true, I’d like to think that there’s a little more to it. Within movies such as Top Gun, where so many simple rules of screenwriting and film making are broken, it is the simplest things that keep us coming back. One liners, gripping action, and interesting characters, serve as a lifeboat for this sinking script. While not all scripts with such problems can attract talent such as Tom Cruise and Meg Ryan, it is important to recognize the little things that can save, and better yet, improve your script.

Characters have always been a staple in a good script, but what I find to be equally as important is character dynamics. The way that relationships between characters are depicted will dictate how much your audience feels connected to them. It is this great dynamic that made a simple TV concept about six friends living in New York the monster franchise Friends, by making the audience feel like it’s a part of the gang. Such is arguably true with Goose and Maverick. We may not like Maverick, but we like Goose and Maverick as a team, and therefore we root for Maverick in the end.

Another major tool used to make this movie a success is its use of one-liners. Simple little lines like Maverick’s “flippin’ the bird” quote, or Carol’s “take me home or loose me forever,” are excellent examples of how trivial dialogue can enhance any script’s marketability. With one little line a movie can be remembered for decades. Think of lines like “we’ll always have Paris” from Casablanca, or “you can’t handle the truth” from A Few Good Men. Most people will recognize these quotes, even if they haven’t seen the movie. While all dialogue should be true to your character and story, it is lines like these that can set it apart. Unfortunately, it is lines like these that are also incredibly difficult to come up with.

These are only two examples of interesting techniques that may not enhance your actual story, but can bring your script to the next level. Story is always the most important aspect of a script in my mind, but once it’s laid out it could be very advantageous to pull out as many cheap tricks as possible.


Ahh, the simple pleasures!

A world of its own…

Crafting your animated world through real life recognition:


The most basic of human desires...

Many a times I have been curious about the possibilities of writing an animated feature, targeting the young audiences that have so loyally enjoyed the Disney Pixar and Dreamworks films. The appeal in writing for this kind of film lies in the limitless possibilities of the new worlds explored, as well as the light-hearted tones and themes that drive these popular features. On the surface, the purpose of such films is to provide the young and simple minds of children with an enjoyable and entertaining story.

Upon closer examination, however, these movies deal directly with the issues at hand today in our own society. When crafting a world and characters far different from those with which we are familiar, the screenwriter must do a great deal to make the characters and conflicts relatable to their audience. This task is most commonly achieved by infusing realistic character traits into the imaginary characters and putting them in situations not unfamiliar to our own.

In many cases, an animated feature, which may seem to operate as a comedic escape from our daily issues, is in fact a direct reflection of the problems the screenwriter recognizes within our society. A great example of this lies in the film Wall-E. Wall-E takes a robot that can’t properly communicate in the way we expect, and brings him to life through the use of human emotions and goals. While Wall-E may be a robot who’s “objective” is to collect trash, the audience can recognize his humanity through his expressive mannerisms and his true goals. Like so many other protagonists, Wall-E just wants to overcome loneliness by winning over the heart of a superior female.

More significantly, however, Wall-E serves as a terrific protagonist due to the position he is in to save mankind from the damage we have done to our world and our selves. In a time of global awareness, the theme of cleaning up the world we trashed, and breaking the lack of awareness that comes from technological advances and pure laziness functions as a superb theme of timely heroism. In this way, Wall-E goes beyond being a simple children’s movie by examining so many relatable conflicts and issues within the world we know.

Wall-E does not stand alone in this success. Think back to almost any animated children’s movie, and you will see that no matter how abstract the world and characters, the film deals with issues and goals drawn from our own lifestyle. Whether it be The Lion King’s reflection of greed and betrayal, or Shrek’s focus on societal standards and judgment rooted in physical appearance, it seems that in order to successfully craft a light hearted and enjoyable animated feature, one must first focus on real-life issues of the most serious nature.

We all want the same things...

We all want the same things...

Write what ya know!

Writing, in many ways, is an artistic form of BS. You bust out the old keyboard and start spewing out words about a land that doesnt exist, and characters that you may not be able to relate to on most levels. Whether you’re writing dialogue for your lovable protagonist, or evil villain, you have to dig deep and get a sense for what it’s like to be in that person’s head for that moment. This is creativity, this is inventive, this is (at times) total bullshit.

The same is true for many conflicts and actions. I myself imagine really cool scenarios that I would love to be a part of, but I am completely boring in real life. This is where writing comes in. In writing, you can envision yourself in your character and make them do all the really awesome stuff that you’re just too average to get away with. Once again, this is a perfect example of writing as a form of manipulation.

But no matter how far-fetched and at times dishonest your writing may be, it will always be obvious how well you know the subject at hand. So I give you this ultimatum: Either write what you know, or know what you write.

Many of us, if prompted, could go on for days about our favorite sport, our first love, the place we call home, or any number of fond topics. When properly tweaked and toned, the incorporation of these into our story can work wonders. By writing what you know, you automatically bring a sense of reality to your writing that is very authentic and accessible.

On the other hand, many scripts you write will be rooted in topics that you have no experience with. Maybe you always wanted to be a rock star, but have never played the guitar. Writing about a rock star is way more interesting than writing about your average college student, but if your going to explore the unfamiliar, you’d better brush up on your chords. Just like writing about something you’re passionate about, understanding every possible aspect of your subject matter will enable you to effortlessly write a story that reeks of realism. Your audience will become more immersed in your world with every little detail that you tie in, and will feel like they really exist in this crazy reality you’ve crafted for them.

So before you write “FADE IN:” you need to dust off the encyclopedia, get over your distaste for google, and finally talk to that weird aunt who went there once upon a time, because good research is the easiest way to making it through 100 pages. No BS.

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