…that I have learned about succeeding in writing for the screen…
…that I have learned about succeeding in writing for the screen…
- CONCEPT AND STORY FIRST. People tend to think screenwriting is about writing scripts (i.e. slug lines, scene description and dialogue) – those words on the page that others will read and possibly use as a blueprint for a production, in that special format unique to our medium. And yes, it is ultimately about that. But those words on the page are the final and least important step in a process that begins when you start thinking about what your script is going to be about. To put it simply, concept is king in selling your work into the marketplace, and story (the underlying choices behind what’s written on the script page) is king in deciding if it’s going to be “good” or not. The heavy lifting of screenwriting is always about these two things.
- YOU MUST HAVE PASSION. When you commit to writing something, if you’re doing it for the money, and/or the desire to please and fulfill another’s vision, without having real passion and belief in what you’re embarking on, you are destined to fail. You must find your individual “take” on material that you fully believe in, and are excited about, if it’s to have any hope of working for someone else. Even if someone else tells you what they think it needs to be (and pays you to deliver that), if you don’t fully buy into that idea, too, it will show – and it will end up not pleasing anyone. You have to make it “yours.” It’s your job.
- BE OPEN TO OTHERS’ FEEDBACK. There’s a specific way to do this: you don’t let “them” tell you what it should be., but you also invite real honesty from people whose opinion has earned your respect. You then look at what they have to say through this lens: “Is there an underlying concern they have that, in my heart of hearts, I agree with?” This means looking beyond their suggested “fixes” (which you should never take literally unless you love them) to find what isn’t working for them, or what the material might need to work. Especially look at issues that multiple readers share. This doesn’t mean they’re right necessarily: you have to run it all through the filter of your sensibility. But don’t be defensive, protective, and resistent. Fully weigh what they have to say, and be completely honest with yourself. Your work has to please you first, but it’s ultimate goal is to have a positive effect on others. Feedback is essential to achieving this.
- YOUR INTELLECTUAL MIND DOESN’T CREATE. All it can do is record and explore and organize what has “come” to you from the source of all ideas. What is this source? I know what Mozart said: that good ideas come best when you are “completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer.” So a big part of the job is to do those three things, not to try to “figure out” your concept, story, character and scenes. Yes, there is intellectual work done along the way. But the receiving of good ideas is the most important “work” we ever do.
- “FRESH, COMPELLING, AND REAL.” A good concept, story, character, scene, or dramatic event will ideally meet those three criteria. (1) It has to be FRESH: unique and not overly familiar – it can be familiar, but not overly familiar. Something about it should be brand new. (2) COMPELLING: It has to grab the audience and make them care about what’s happening – it must compel them to want to read or see more – and entertain them while it’s doing that. (3) REAL: It must be believable within the world where the story is set. If you don’t believe the characters would do what they’re doing, then you won’t be entertained, and you won’t care. Yes, movies and TV shows are made which don’t fully meet all these criteria, and certainly not for all audience members. But it’s a worthy mission to keep in mind.
- CONSTANT CONFLICT. At every moment and in every scene there must be a problem for your characters – preferably a pressing overall story problem as well as a present-moment scene problem. There is an unanswered question that is important to them, and to us, that is driving the action forward. Whenever that doesn’t exist, the story goes slack. When characters are happy and a scene is about exploring that, the audience will always begin to yawn. There must be something threatening that happiness in the background that is still very present in our minds – and that happiness has to be partial and very temporary.
- SINGULAR POINT OF VIEW. Very occasionally, a movie succeeds that is a true ensemble: a collection of mini-stories with different main characters (like THE BIG CHILL), or a “couple story” where it’s hard to define who is more central (like PRETTY WOMAN). But these are so rare, and difficult to pull off, that they are truly the exception to this rule: There must be a main character whose point-of-view we experience the story from – and whose emotions and desires we take on. Usually, they are present in (or the main topic of) virtually every scene. Be clear about whose story it is, if you want to make us care.
- ENTERTAINMENT IS ABOUT EMOTION. We are not primarily trying to stimulate people’s minds by presenting them with things which are interesting. Our primary job is to stimulate them to feel something – and that’s what audiences pay us to do. At the end of the day, we all want to be uplifted into states of greater joy, greater passion, greater aliveness. We want to feel part of something we care about, relate with and feel connected to, and through that, to experience big emotions that will provide a release and escape. Some stories are about problem-solving, and some give us something useful or enjoyable that we can take into our day-to-day life. But first and foremost, we must have emotional investment to take the journey.
- “IT’S REAL” IS NOT ENOUGH. Whether you’re writing about a true story, or just a type of situation or character that you know exists in the real world, every story needs to be a coherent emotional journey from beginning to end, in order to really succeed with audiences. The fact that an event was an interesting or key element that really occurred does not justify it’s inclusion. Our job is always to serve the overall concept and story, and keep the audience focused on and compelled by that. If you’re tempted to include something that wouldn’t fit into a totally made-up story, only because it’s “true” or “really happened” or seems “important” or “cool” in and of itself, but it doesn’t connect to this larger purpose, you will dilute your impact.
- SEEK TO “GIVE,” NOT TO “GET.” First and foremost, what works in life also works in a screenwriting career. If your focus is on receiving money, employment, praise, or success, and you are writing in order to try to get those things, your work will never come alive and be as successful as if you are truly giving something to the world that you believe is of value, without attachment to what it might do for you. Ironically, outer success seems to always come from this pure intention, and not from trying to make something happen for yourself. It’s tempting to focus on who you can get your material to, or what you want from them, in order for you to “succeed” in your career, but you will always be better served if you focus on bettering your craft, your work, and yourself, and seeking to give something you’re excited about. Keep adjusting and adding to what you do so that you are giving more and more value, in ways that you believe in. That value will come back to you, probably through better channels than you expected: because the business – and the world – is hungry for good material.
(Special thanks to my guest blogger today, Erik Bork. Erik won an Emmy for his work on BAND OF BROTHERS. His script notes are the best I've ever received. Amazing that such a talented writer does consulting. He's reasonably priced and a nice guy. For more articles and information, check out Erik's website at