Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

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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.



Superheroes to the Rescue!

With the current remake trend representing a major share of new releases in 2011, Comic book movies are revisiting things in a brave new way.

Bond through the ages...

The film industry has been relying heavily on the model of producing material with a built in audience for quite some time. A reboot of an old favorite guarantees a certain level of success independent from any other aspect of execution solely for the benefits of audience familiarity. It is the concept that has kept James Bond on the silver screen for decades, just as it has with so many other familiar characters. Franchise films sell tickets before the first trailer is released, and in an industry as volatile as Hollywood, that is a very appealing concept. This built-in security has generated a boom in adaptations, remakes, reboots, and reimagining’s in recent history, while narrowing the window of opportunity for original content. Why would a studio take a risk on an unfamiliar and unproven concept, when they have three more Spider Man installments ready and waiting?

While there is certainly a sense that Hollywood is neglecting the value of quality writing and innovative ideas, creativity and good story telling have found themselves an unlikely hero amidst the chaos. Comic book movies epitomize the studio’s dependency on revisiting time tested material, and have seen a huge expansion in recent years, with nearly every major super hero and comic book villain finding their way on to one sheets and in to action-packed trailers. But a genre that used to pump out action-centric films where story was more or less an afterthought has taken a new approach to story telling, and in many ways is the saving grace of an industry that cares far more about the zeros on the checks than the words on the page.

In years past you could count on a good super hero movie to have some great fight scenes, some big explosions, probably some cool technology, and a few smoking hot villains or victims, but when it came to story quality it was more or less a delivery system for the “Booms” and boobs. Most comic book movies followed a pretty standard template of the hero has to stop the bad guys and save the girl.

In recent years however, the genre took a new look at their characters and brought it back to where it all began, and in doing so began putting a stronger emphasis on story and character development. The creation story has become the recent trend, and we have watched as nearly every franchise dusts off the initial volumes and digs in to the back story of the popular superheroes that have been so successful over the years. They brought us back to when Tony Stark found the key to his iron suit, to when 007 fell in love with martinis, and to when that spider snacked on Peter Parker’s skin. We saw an X-Men movie where Dr. X and Magneto still fought on the same team, and a Planet of the Apes film with apes that couldn’t yet speak English. We still got all that we expect out of a good super hero movie, with guns, capes, girls, and a new bat mobile, but we got it all by way of well written plots, heavy in respectable themes and rich character development in a way we never fully have.

By starting at the beginning, the screenwriter has been able to explore the character arch as a prominent plot line, letting the struggle against an actual bad guy play out in the b-story. We’ve gotten to see the heroes haunted pasts and current struggles, to witness their internal conflict and their coming to terms with their fate, and most importantly, we’ve gotten to see them back when they were just a normal person. This glance into who our heroes were before they were heroes has developed a stronger relationship between audience and action figure. We can connect with them on a human level, rather than view them as immortal, and develop a deeper connection to them as substantial characters.

The studios have recognized this as a huge asset to their already reliable franchise films, and have begun to utilize it as much as possible. We saw Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to confront his fear of bats in Batman Begins and we loved it. So what did the studio do when they returned with The Dark Knight? They gave us Harvey Dent, a stand up politician determined to rid Gotham of crime. We related to him for his good intentions and his human flaws, which made his transformation into the famous villain Two-Face that much more profound. This wasn’t the only major accomplishment in the hugely successful Batman film, as it also had a script that explored areas of psychology with the pathological Joker character that runs violent social experiments, a tense romantic dilemma between Bruce and Rachel, and the close friendship between billionaire and loyal butler.

Such examples can be mined from the reincarnation of dozens of popular franchises. Those who have realized the potential of complimenting eye-popping explosions that sell tickets with well-developed characters set against complex plots and significant themes, have opened the genre up to a broader audience. These new age re-vamps have become accessible to more than just comic book nerds and pyro-crazy teenagers, by seeing the value in a good story. In this way, the super heroes have done it again, by swooping in and protecting Hollywood from devaluing a good script entirely, and they have been substantially rewarded for it.

Born from bats.

Seeing The Big Picture

Enriching your script through filmmaking awareness.

Michael Mann, master of mixed media

Film is a fantastic form of visual art. Like all visual mediums, film offers the viewer imagery to perceive and interpret thoughtfully. What distinguishes film from these other forms of artistic expression is its ability to utilize so many complimenting works of art in order to tell its story. While the screenwriter employs the creative fiction trade, the cinematographer utilizes techniques of photography, just as the sound design team practices the musical art and the talent practices the art of acting. In creating a film, the filmmaker must capitalize on these contributions abilities to best serve the final product.

Because of this collaboration of mediums, it is important that all contributors keep in mind every piece that fits in to the film making puzzle. This applies most appropriately to the writing stages. Since writing is the first step in telling this visual story, having an acute awareness, as a screenwriter, of how a scene will be choreographed, sound tracked, shot and edited is essential to a film’s success. Even the most beautiful story can fall flat if it does not translate from the page to the screen effectively. This is the very reason that so many fantastic books have turned in to such lousy movies.

It is this awareness to which I attribute many great filmmakers success. In many cases, when a film is written, directed, and produced or edited by one man, the film tends to have a genuine feel to it that may be drastically lacking in other movies. Take for instance Michael Mann. Say what you will about his movies, which have received mixed reviews, but one thing you can never say is that they don’t feel real. Mann rewrites scripts based on the ideas he brings to the table as a director/producer, and goes about making his films in the most authentic ways possible. He usually shoots on digital cameras, making his shots seem that much more life like, and he crafts characters and settings so distinct that they come to life before your eyes. To top it all off, Mann has a masterful way of sound tracking films that sends chills down my spine every time I watch them. Take for instance the scene from Collateral, which man discusses below. This scene captures the emotion of the entire film through its use of cinematography, acting, and sound tracking. As we learn from Mann’s comments, this scene was incredibly premeditated from the writing stage onward.

So, when writing a screenplay, one should constantly be considering everything that will go in to bringing the story to life. We all sit down to write with this incredible idea. We can feel the magical aura of the scenery and the tension between two characters, but it is finding a way to externalize these senses that is what screenwriting is all about. All of the minute visual details, the dramatic music that comes in after that heavy line of dialogue, and the way the light hits the actor’s face when he saves the heroine from her demise play an important role in this process. I myself have a tendency to visualize each shot down to the most technical details. I have recently used this technique to improve my cinematic writing by recognizing how each action is shot and breaking my scene direction down accordingly.

While many of the things that I consider would never find their way on to the page, it has proven incredibly beneficial in setting the tone for my writing. Let’s face it, the director doesn’t want your input on what kind of underwear the character has on, but it might make all the difference if you realize that your protagonist is irritated by an uncomfortable wedgie, or is happy as can be with his choice to go commando on a breezy summer afternoon.

"You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of drawers they wear." - Van Wilder

So, the next time you get stuck trying to depict that magical sensation of your scene, take into consideration all of the complimenting art forms that the film will employ to bring that scene to life. You will start to watch as the scene takes shape in your head, and with any luck the words will start flowing with perfect details to set the tone.


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