Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Writing Drills

A new approach to developing your writing style.

I’ve been in Hollywood for six months now, working on my craft, interning at a production company, taking classes, and enjoying the local atmosphere. I am a humble BU grad looking for a chance to prove my worth, but six months ago when I drove in to town in my Mini Cooper packed to the brim with my belongings, I was a cocky 22-year-old who was convinced I was going to enter the industry with a bang and be the next big thing. I also expected to start interning and be blown away by the excellent scripts that I would be covering on a daily basis. Looking back I’m not sure which is more naive, as I am a long ways away from my big break and have grown tired of writing “Pass” on coverage templates.

The sea of terrible scripts that pass through a production office in a given week is both inspirational and discouraging. Most of these failed attempts at a feature script are identifiable within the first few pages. If the writing style doesn’t give it away, cheesy dialogue, sloppy structure, or lame concepts almost certainly do. On the contrary, however, a great script will make itself known even sooner. The scripts that grab people’s attention do so not only with cool concepts, well formed plots and characters, and the usual aspects of a good story. They compliment these conventions of story telling with a writing style that snags the reader form the first page, telling their story in a voice that projects the film in the back of the reader’s head. Doing so requires a rare skill that walks the thin line between imaginative prose and efficient screenwriting that utilizes the medium of film to the fullest.

This isn’t a tangible feat, however. It may sound simple in theory, but in actuality there is nothing that measures a script’s “wow factor.” It was a concept that I struggled with for a long time, wondering how I would blindly stumble across my voice, or find a way of illustrating my scripts with head turning style. I had learned the elements of structure, character, concept, and themes that are the groundwork of a great story, but no one can teach you how to find your own voice and develop a writing style that is uniquely your own. That is until a friend of mine made a simple suggestion that changed the way I thought about practicing my craft.

When discussing what makes a script stand apart from the rest, my friend Josh said “think of writing more like basketball drills.” This hit me over the head as if I was standing under the hoop when Lebron laid down a huge dunk. The excitement was overwhelming. It was a new way of approaching writing, and one that was sure to enhance my style.

The idea is simple; forget writing in blocks of a hundred page features, and just for a while write scene by scene, focusing less on the plot, character arch, blah blah blah, and more on the quality of the writing and the style which I’ve just been emphasizing. I combined this philosophy with a collection of scenes from GoIntoTheStory’s blog (which you can find HERE) that included scenes which stood as great examples of a wide variety. Some had excellent dialogue, others gripping action sequences, and more still depicted the world of the script in stellar fashion. I wanted to master this wide array of scene types, while honing my voice at the same time.

So I set out on a mission. A drill a day, in week long blocks, until I master as many scene types as I can think of. Each week I pick a new genre of scene, be it car chases, love scenes, comic relief, climactic battles between hero and villain, exposition… you name it. Each week is dedicated to a new objective, which means that after each week I have five to seven new scenes. I take risks, getting creative and exploring ways of telling my story that I would be too cautious to include in a feature length script. I create hypothetical problems that I force my self to solve, and get to work with an expansive cast of characters and settings.

Another clear advantage to this daily drill exercise is that I have learned a great deal about creating scenes that follow a solid structure. In writing scene by scene, I try to convey at least a somewhat captivating and cohesive story in a small window of time, and I believe that this is a skill that will prove valuable to my writing in general.

So give it a shot! Sit down and just start writing a scene. Any scene. But make it as captivating and well written as possible. Then the next day, try writing the same scene in a totally different way, breaking out of your comfort zone a bit to try out some new stylistic choices and exploring your voice. If you’re serious enough about it than give the daily drill a shot. Start each week with a genre and write a new scene under that genre each day, paying close attention to what aspect of your writing the scene is implementing, and practicing that specific skill. Before long you’ll notice that you find yourself gravitating towards certain methods and tricks, and that is how you find your voice as a writer. It wont be easy, and I am by no means saying that I’ve accomplished such a feat, but Im much closer than I was.

 

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