Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for the ‘Writing Techniques’ Category

Sticks and Stones…

Giving your dialogue that extra punch.

Dialogue is for many the most intimidating part of writing. FInding a way to breath life and pizzaz into their character’s can discourage anyone from making their master piece come to life. Even successful Hollywood writers would agree that dialogue is a daunting component of a script. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, who really reads scene direction any way? Relax, of course people read scene direction, but the dialogue is what makes or breaks a good story.

I was recently re-watching Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a great film that is among my bluray collection for good reason. I’d always enjoyed the movie, but upon my most recent viewing I realized that the story itself was pretty predictable, the character very typical, and the world totally plain. So what is it that makes this movie so gripping? Ive seen it time and time again, know exactly what happens, yet I still can’t turn away. The answer is the electrifying dialogue. Every word is delivered with such intensity and force that you feel it in your own bones.

So I got the screenplay, hoping for the same effect, but was greatly disappointed. The dialogue on the page is bulky and awkward. It has only glimpses of the impressive nature of the words that jumped out of my TV. The opening monologue is an excellent example of this. What sounded great in the movie read as muddled garbage. It had lost that edge that made me think “wow, this character knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” Even as a lunatic’s rant, this monologue still had power in its well chosen words, once chut down in the production and post production phases.

This is an excellent example of over writing dialogue. It’s so common that even Tony Gilroy couldn’t avoid it, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you catch this in your next revision! Great dialogue, in my mind, consists of three key elements:

1) Originality – find a way to deliver your message in a way that hasn’t been used a million times. This is what makes for great movie quotes that stick in your audience’s mind, and make up killer trailers.

2) Subtext – We all know how awful on the nose dialogue can be, so dont do it.

3) Brevity. I can’t emphasize enough the power of lean dialogue. Get your point across and shut up. This is what made the dialogue in the film so great was you really got the impression that the characters, mostly successful lawyers, thought at a faster pace. Not a word was wasted, misused, or underpowered. The violence of the film came across more in the brutality of their words than the car bomb and murder.

So, next time you sit down to write some dialogue, pay attention to every word. Does it say exactly what you want it to say? Does it need to be there? Can you scour your vocabulary for a more efficient way of saying it? Chances are you can, and Im not saying everything needs to be one word answers, there are times for long winded rants and confusing tangents, but choose them wisely. It will serve you well by making for more powerful dialogue, and by improving the flow of your script.


Make it Yours

Be the only one that can make your movie!

"A lot of people wanted to hear my story and they said that it would make for a good movie. I insisted on writing it." -Antwone Fisher

Survival of the fittest is a law that governs all life forms on this planet. While the human race may have evolved beyond the primitive tendencies of hunting, gathering, and procreating, the nature of the film industry can be boiled down to animalistic instincts; the weak suffer while the strong survive in the brutal fight to the fresh meat. And with hords of aspiring writers, directors, cinematographers, you name it, all trying to fight their way into the business, education alone is not enough to stand out on this battle field. To make a name for yourself you need to find what it is that you have to offer that will set you apart.

This idea is daunting when considered on a broad scale. I have asked myself in desperation “what do I have that makes me special?” I struggled with this uncertainty for quite some time before finding an answer, and it is one that everyone can benefit from.

Make every movie your own. Before starting on any project, lay out all of the variables and analyze them on a personal level. What is the world? Who are the characters? What is the tone? The themes? What are the complications?… How can I infuse all of these aspects with my own personality? What experience do I have that I can draw from in bringing this to life? What about this is my own?

"One of the things I do, which I think always surprises the studios, is I demand to go back and redo the primary research... I went out to Pahrump, Nevada, where there's a six-hundred-acre course, and I crawled around in the dirt for a few days and I shot and shot and shot and shot." -Jonathan Lemkin

Now I’m not saying that every script you write should be a memoir, or that every film you make should border on documentary. But what I am suggesting is that you find a way to relate as deeply to the material as possible, so that you know the story as if it was yours. If you cant relate to the emotional struggles of your widowed female lead, recall your first heartbreak, and the devastation of being alone and the struggle of moving on. Remember how amazing that perfect sunset was back on your family vacation to the Caribbean when you were thirteen. Feel the astonishment that flooded your senses as you took in the surreallness of the moment, and harness it while you find a way to get the perfect shot of whatever beauty the script calls for.

But most importantly, find that moment in your life that defined you. That experience that changed your out look and let you see life through a new lens. This is your most powerful tool in this industry; your own personal lens. It is more important than any camera filter, writing technique, or film making style you may have picked up along the way because it gives you the ability to let your work stand apart. When told through this lens, all of your stories will be distinctly your own. You can confidently write and sell a script knowing that it is unique from anything else out there. You can approach any film project knowing that you are the one for the job.

Every moment in your life, every accomplishment no matter how significant, every struggle no matter how big or small, every relationship you’ve had, has defined you. Now you must let it also define your work.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Dreaming big and often.

Acceptable movie, exceptional message.

This post will stray from my usual writing-centric additions, but I find it very important in a career of such uncertainty that you keep your goals and ambitions in the forefront of you mind. It is crucial in all walks of life to visualize everything that you hope to achieve, but in the arts, where certainty is near-fictional, aspiring professionals and established artists alike must not lose sight of the things they’re working towards. There will be many periods of struggle and ambiguity, when the strongest tool a writer can have is their hope and determination.

This isn’t an original concept by any means. Their is a plethora of inspirational and informative publications out there, urging people to think positively and frequently about what it is they want out of life. I was initially inspired by the popular film The Secret, which I would recommend to everyone, no matter their profession. Most recently, however, my screenwriting professor and friend Rose Cummings discussed the use of personal mission statements as a form of navigating through the industry’s trying nature.

While everyone will go about motivating themselves in a different manner, I am a strong believer in visualization. Be it the tropical paradise clipped to Max’s taxi visor in Collateral, or my own, more elaborate methods, seeing and believing is a key component in attracting everything you desire. Calling upon as many senses as possible when envisioning your future success will compliment the mental aspect of imagination greatly.

My daily que has taken on the form of a personally crafted desktop background. I compiled pictures that represent everything I plan to obtain, and creatively compiled a colorful, inspirational collage for my laptop. These images prompt brief day-dreaming every time I open my computer, but also rest in the background when I write, reminding me of this hopeful attitude periodically amidst my story telling efforts. I encourage everyone to find their own way of decorating their work area with visual cues, to keep their eye on the prize amidst their occasionally laborious efforts.

Pin your goals on the cork board of your mind.

Another form of daily encouragement that I’ve found successful is incorporating my wish list into a daily journal. I would encourage every writer to keep a journal, if they don’t already, because it allows for a filter-free method of expression. The prose of a journal is much more authentic and intimate than the writing style of a script, and since you know you will be the only one to read it, it opens up the opportunity for experimentation and creativity. Anyway, at the end of every entry, I include a little section dedicated to what I want at that moment. Yesterday’s entry, for example read; “What I want most today: Health, Friends, Success.” Other days the list has included words as simple as “subletters, final exam A, or successful interview.” It’s that simple. Just a few words to put your thoughts down on paper. Taking that little effort will strengthen the significance of the positive thoughts that drift through your mind throughout the day.

While these methods are time consuming, deliberate methods of focusing on attainment, it is also beneficial to passively remind yourself of these desires throughout the day. An aspiring young adult is constantly on the move throughout the day, so I employed the use of what is called a “gratitude rock,” which is mentioned in The Secret, though only in passing.

The purpose of the gratitude rock is a subtle method of keeping your thoughts on a positive track, no matter what struggles your day may put in your path. It can be whatever trinket you desire; a lucky coin, a fancy ring, or a well-word stone… In my case, it is a handblown bead tied to a string which I tie to my belt loop and keep in my pocket for easy access. I run my fingers across it during frustrating arguments, boring moments on the T, or in important meetings when a little determination can go a long way.

So think about what it is you want most out of life. Fine tune your wish list. Shop around the universe and pick out whatever it is that matters most. Get a good sense of your strongest desires and find whichever way works best for you to keep those goals present in your thoughts at all times. Once you know what you want, never let yourself lose sight of it. Never catch yourself thinking “I’ll never get there.” Just give it all you’ve got, both in attitude and in action, and eventually you will find yourself at the top of the metaphoric Philadelphia staircase, arms raised in triumph and mind soaring in pride of all you’ve accomplished. Then write about it…

Raise your arms in triumph

The Beauty of Baumbach

Why I admire the screenwriting of Noah Baumbach.

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Today’s films are saturated with over-the-top action sequences and flashy sexuality. The typical conventions of screenwriting have been sacrificed for commercial marketability that promises box-office success in the form of sexy casts and Deceptacons. While intimate, character driven scripts tell beautiful stories, rooted in human emotion and struggle, they don’t rake in the dollars at opening night the way a fast paced action thriller or star-studded Rom Com never fails to. Such well-crafted stories are so out of place that they are almost always produced outside of the studio system as “indie” projects, or by the smaller artsy studios such as Magnolia Pictures and Focus Features.

Throughout his years of filmmaking, writer/director Noah Baumbach has remained loyal to this exact kind of story telling. His screenwriting ignores the cheap tricks so overly utilized in today’s market, and instead focuses on crafting unique, rich characters and captivating stories rooted in simplicity and realism. While his most common criticism is that his films are too boring, I instead find them to be deeply fascinating for their ability to explore the most relatable of human emotions in a very original way.

His latest film, Greenberg, is no exception. This film follows a psychologically troubled man through his re-immersion back into society, and his efforts to do…nothing. The character of Greenberg is one riddled with insecurities and idiosyncrasies, but posses no spectacular traits of any kind. He is just a common man who suffered from intense anxiety issues that led to a nervous breakdown, and he is now learning to cope with these troubles on a daily basis. It is his struggles that allow the audience to sympathize with his character, as we can all recognize a piece of our own vulnerability amongst his complexity. It is this connection between the audience and the characters that provides a captivating element in a story that lacks fast paced action and suspense.

These conventions of storytelling are not new to film making. Instead, Baumbach is revitalizing the techniques of classic filmmaking of the 60’s and 70’s. Consider, for a moment, one of your favorite films from this time period. Does it showcase the intense action sequences of today’s popular movies? At a time when Hollywood didn’t have these cheap gimmicks at their disposal, they relied on the human realism in a fashion similar to Baumbach. They took their time developing their characters, their world, and their journey, in order to make the most fully developed and intriguing story possible. The resulting products gave us such masterpieces as The Godfather, Deerhunter, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, just to name a few. All tremendous examples of screenwriting excellence, and all the product of minimal flash and pizzazz.

This is the sign of great screenwriting. If you haven’t already discovered Baumbach’s work I suggest you give it a glance. His Greenberg script is a very fun read which taught me a lot about character development and emotional insight. Among his other notable scripts are; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Margot at the Wedding. All are written in Baumbach’s intimate style and are very helpful in terms if story development.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Buddies Know Best

How the buddy relationship can serve your script.

We’re on a mission from God…

Different types of characters have served many different purposes in screenwriting. As a general rule of thumb, any character must serve the protagonist in some purpose or another. Whether it is the antagonist exposing the hero’s weaknesses, or the outsider serving as a source of expositional information, these characters have little significance beyond their duty to the scripts main character.

This makes the buddy dynamic a very fun and interesting strategy in screenwriting. The two buddy characters usually share a common goal, making their independence as characters a bit excessive, but it is the way that they serve each other as independent protagonists that makes this technique worth while. In a buddy film, the audience tends to learn the most about each character from the perspective of the other buddy. We also watch a relationship that is appealing and generally comedic.

This function can spill into genres other than the typical buddy film, when close friends, siblings, or partners in action have such a close relationship that their interactions reveal the most minute character details. This of course makes each character that much more realistic for the audience, and their goals that much more relatable.

In the effort to avoid sounding redundant, Ill avoid the obvious example of Butch and Sundance. So, consider, for example, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Red’s response to Andy’s opinions act as a means of further exploring these feelings. Without Red, Andy’s explanation of his reliance on “hope” would read as on the nose dialogue, and would seem awkward. It is Red’s insight into this emotional explanation that makes this scene feel so natural.

Such excellent examples of what I’ll call “the buddy insight” work their way into films of all genres. Think of your favorite film and imagine it without the protagonist’s best friend or sidekick. The character would be noticeably flatter and therefor less appealing.

So I encourage you to explore the possibility of a buddy in your own script. Whether it is a true brotherly bond story, or a sappy rom-com, Im confident that a close relationship could bring your character to life if utilized properly.

Your Line on the Horizon

Working with your setting to bring the story to life.

In Syd Feild’s Screenwriter’s Corner, he discusses the potential of using the properties of an action sequence to craft the arch of the scene. I was thinking about this insight while working on my own script’s revision last night, and found that visualizing the setting brought a lot not only to my action sequences, but my story as a whole. Now it may seem obvious that the writer’s job is to know everything in their scene’s location, but thinking about it the way Mr. Feild suggested seems almost backwards and definitely brought a new dimension to my understanding of each scenes dramatic action.

Taking his advice I started thinking about the spacial movement that had to take place amongst scenes, and started placing my character’s motions and dialogue along that timeline. I started paying attention to where the characters would be when they reacted to certain lines, what prop could best compliment their emotional expression, and how the scenery could enhance the mood of the scene, rather than how the scene could work in a specific location.

When it came to my action scene, I could totally visualize how the scene would fit into the movements that had to be made based on the physical space.

I thought about how this technique may have come in handy in one of my all time favorites; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This scene is a great example of how an entire scene is dictated almost entirely by the character’s surroundings, after that its just up to the screenwriter to craft the dialogue in a witty manner and “make the plunge” if you will…

Screenwriting is a trade of building a world within your writing, so I had a bit of fun working backwards and shaping my writing around my world. Give it a shot some time and see how you like it.

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.


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