Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ten Scripts and Ten Years

A pro writer told me he was at a conference and one of the panelists (working screenwriter) was asked if he had any advice to new writers.   "Quit."  After the laugh from the crowd subsided the writer explained, "It's damn hard work.  The odds are against you.  Spend time with your friends and family.  Exercise.  Do anything else if you can."
The average pro takes ten scripts and ten years to break into screenwriting. 

Saw Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot speak at the Nashville Conference (great event) in '09. They gave themselves ten years to break in. Wrote ten scripts they never showed to anyone before they had one they felt was ready. They broke in the business in five years -- well ahead of schedule -- and went on to write Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. 

10,000 hours. 
The excellent book THE OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell has a chapter discussing the early years of The Beatles.  Grinding it out hour after hour in seedy Hamburg clubs is where the developed into pros. Studies show it takes ten thousand hours to master something -- anything. 

So if you write 10-20 hours a week (assuming you have a day gig) that's ten years of consistent effort to hot those 10,000 hours. 

If you can go at it fulltime -- average working year is 2,000 hours -- you can get there in five years. 

Are you writing this many hours? 
If someone asks you, "How can I become a screenwriter?"... Now you know what to tell them. 

Ten years.  Ten scripts.  Ten thousand hours.  Or you could just tell them to quit...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ten Tips to A Better Screenplay

 (Guest Blogger/Consultant Julia Bergeron provides these tips.  Good advice!)

1.     Make your protagonist active.  So easy to say, so important to do.  Passive protagonists who don’t have a goal and/or don’t pursue their goal are the downfall of potentially great dramas.  Don’t let that be the downfall of your script.  Let your hero act.
2.     Show don’t tell.  I know, I know. You’ve heard that before and plenty of times.  That’s because it’s so important.  Film is visual therefore creating strong images is a key to writing a solid screenplay.  Rather than use exposition to have a character tell us, “Cora is the world’s best sharpshooter,” show a scene where Cora makes an extraordinary shot.  Show.  Don’t tell.
3.     Write in the active present tense.  It’s, “Jericho kicks the door in.” and not “Jericho is kicking in the door.”  Screenplays unfold as we read them and the active present tense reinforces that impression.
4.     Spell check.  Format check.  Script writing software makes it easy to do it.  The other guy will.  You should too.
5.     Read your script out loud. There is no better way to develop an ear for on the nose dialogue than to hear your script out loud.   So, read it aloud.  Better yet have friends read it out loud while you sit silently and listen.  Oh, you’ll want to jump in, to correct them, to explain.  Don’t.  Don’t correct them, don’t interrupt, don’t defend your script.  Just listen to it.  If your readers make mistakes, the readers you submit your script to just might make the same errors.  Fix the errors; don’t blame “bad” readers.  In fact, thank them.  They are allowing you to hear your script’s weaknesses.  A decent actor can make bad dialogue sound reasonable.  But you aren’t writing your spec script for a “decent” actor, are you?  I’m writing mine for Penelope Cruz! And we are all writing for the reader. 
6.     Between the truth and the legend, tell the legend.  This means don’t overwhelm the story with factual, but boring, details.  Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with all the boring parts cut out of it.” Cut out the boring bits.  While it might be true that it takes a half hour to saddle up a horse, adjust the stirrups, put the bit in, etc., the fact is you are not writing a horse-care manual.  You are writing a screenplay. When it comes to it, just have the cowboy hop on the horse and go.
7.     No chitchat.  Films are expensive to make. The average cost to make a studio film in 2006 was $65 million (it’s more now) plus marketing.  That’s easily $500,000 per page.  It’s unlikely that a producer is going to pay that much money for “Hi, Bob, nice to meet you.”  And when it’s an independent film on a tight budget, there is even less money to spend on chitchat.  So eliminate it.  Enter as late as possible; leave as early as possible for each scene.  Words are money.  Make them count.
8.     Steer clear of  “talking heads” scenes.  What are those?  That’s when two characters sit around and talk.  Maybe they eat or drink but basically they aren’t doing much.  Usually they are just telling all about themselves.  You’ll often find these in the first draft of a “date scene.”  Remember: telling = dull.  Dull = no sale.  However… If you must include a “talking heads” scene, make it active.   The characters can be doing something totally unrelated to what they are talking about. And you can use that activity to reveal completely new and interesting information. For example, if it’s a date scene, rather than have the date happen in a restaurant, figure out a hobby or an interest that your character has.  Maybe tennis.  Or making sushi.  Or skeet shooting.  Every scene is another opportunity to create something visually interesting. Use every opportunity to put something visual on the page.
9.     Grab us emotionally.  In important moments, slow down and let the reader see and feel how those moments or events affect your character.  For example, if two characters kiss for the first time, don’t have them kiss and then immediately race on to the next plot point.  Show the reader how the characters feel about that experience. We want to know what happens, but we also want to how the characters feel about what happens.   Show us what they feel.
10. Last tip.  Have fun!  Love your characters.  Love the story that you’re telling. If you love it, the chances are much higher other people will too.  And if they don’t, well, you had fun writing it.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am off for some “fun” writing of my own!
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