Monday, December 20, 2010

A Voice vs. An Echo

True artists have their D.N.A. imprinted on their masterworks.   You can recognize the work of a master painter immediately.   Same with a writer.   Rare are unique voices -- distinct and resonating -- in any artistic field.

The average pro screenwriter has a career of 3-5 years.   Read that some time ago and wondered, "Why?"  Because most in any artistic field are echos.   They copy the fad of the day and enjoy a brief bit of popularity before fading out.   Or the energy to sustain their unique voice consumes then and they have brief,  yet brilliant, careers.

The first dozen screenplays you write will likely not be that good.   The first few you'll finish and think they are ready to shop and give you quick success.   After fighting through script after script, you can reflect back and realize how you were fighting through your influences and notions of what's "commercial" and can get attention.   You have to burn out the dross before you develop your craft to a professional level.

There are exceptions: Artists who have early work that meets with success.   Yet they have difficulty sustaining this because they haven't put in the hours and paid the dues necessary.   A previous blog discussed the 10,000 hours necessary to master any subject.   Better to put those  hours in before success comes your way.

Success can be viewed as the residue of past failures.   By the time acclaim or a sale comes your way, you're miles ahead working on new things and pushing to develop your talent.   The book THE WAR OF ART by Pressfield is one I recommend frequently.   Be in for the long haul.   Show up.   Continue showing up.

Another year nearing conclusion, I can see how far I've developed as a writer and how far the road is ahead.   Become a voice.  Work your way through the mediocre ideas and echos.   Be a professional.

Happy Holidays and here's to a great 2011!

One year to go before the world ends.   Make the best of it...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Handling Notes

Getting notes on your work is a big part of the job of a screenwriter. You'll be collaborating (you hope!) with producers, directors, and actors in the future. How you handle notes as an amateur, reflects the professionalism and devotion to the craft you have at this level. If you can't handle them now, you won't handle them later and you'll blow opportunities or have a short lived career.

Amazon Studios and other peer review sites provide the opportunity to get feedback from fellow aspiring writers. The are several pro writers on the boards as well making themselves available for notes. So what do you do with the notes once received? After having spent the last couple of years on peer review sites and working with professional readers I can give you what I do:

1. Have the right attitude reading the notes. Don't be super defensive. Don't argue with the note giver on every point, especially if it's a freebie. Read the notes and set them aside.

2. Get several viewpoints on your script from trusted sources. There are some people who "get it" when it comes to your writing. You want those that appreciate what you do well (yes, some encouragement is good for us all) but also are able to pinpoint weaknesses. Usually this takes getting multiple takes. This will also let you know if a problem area consistently raises red flags for readers. If 4/4 readers have the same reaction, rethink your position.

3. Do the 'Quick fixes' first -- typos. Easy to repair errors or dialogue issues (joke that falls flat or on the nose.

4. On the bigger notes (reworking a character, major plot revision, tone, etc.) make sure the notes is helping you do a better version of YOUR script. Many writers giving notes will pull you in a direction, "Well this is how I'd write the script." These notes can have you heading in directions that are inconsistent with the story you wanted to tell and your voice as a writer.

5. Don't get discouraged. There are many, many drafts on the road. The script is never done until the film is shot. Even then there are reshoots and the editor will shape the final product. You can write a draft trying a different approach and jettison it. You can ignore notes if you feel they detract from your story.

6. Often a note about something not working in act 3 is due to a problem in act 1 -- wasn't set up properly. Be careful of following "effect" notes and look for the root cause. Could be your protagonist or story setup is off early making the later payoff fall flat or off key.

7. Cut, cut, cut. Early drafts are overwritten. Cut scenes down to the essentials. Many writers say cutting the first and last lines in a scene is their first rewrite. Cut out opening chit chat and long dialogue down to size. Show, don't tell, if possible.

8. A table read with actors is a good way to check dialogue and see how your script goes over. Take copious notes.

9. Remember one reader's opinion is just one take on your script. Half the movies on RottenTomatoes are under 50% from critics and those are finished films. Not everyone is going to love your work.

10. Don't ignore format, typos, and other essentials. Sweat the small stuff. It's a sign of a professional.

Finally, rewriting is essential. Many writers avoid the rewriting process thinking, "They'll buy it and fix it" or "I'll fix it when they pay me" or "I'm off on the next script." The real magic happens during the rewrite.

Hemingway once said, "The first draft of anything is shit." True! Now, if you're 16th draft is shit... you might have problems.

Good luck! Keep at it! Feel free to add your thoughts on rewriting and your approach to the process.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


A checklist for your screenplay:

1. Clearly defined genre. Horror, comedy, western, thriller, etc. Do we know what it is? BTW, drama is a tough sell, as are period pieces or bio pics.

2. Marketable concept. Typically referred to as a "high concept" -- a unique hook. Can we SEE the movie poster? Easily think of a tag line?

3. Is there a clear protagonist? Ensemble pieces are a hard sell. Is the protagonist's flaw evident the first 5 pages? Can we turn to the last 5 pages and see the character's arc -- how the protagonist has changed after going through the trail of your story?

4. Is there a clear antagonist? Not "fate" but a person (you can personify a force -- greed, fear, etc. -- but should be a character in your script). Does the antagonist in some way mirror your protagonist?

5. Does the central emotional response from your genre come through to a reader? If it's a comedy, are we laughing? If it's a thriller, are we on the edge of our seat? If it's horror, did you scare the shit out of us? If not, rewrite.

6. Budget. Two ways to go here: (1) Write big -- big expensive film = better pay day for the writer, though they'd likely replace you if you're new; or (2) go modest budget and you can shop it down the producer food chain and get an actual screen credit. Better usually to think big and rewrite to small.

7. Page count. 115 is the new 120. 95-100 is better for a comedy/horror/thriller -- what you should be writing as a newbie.

8. What's unique? Don't retread something we've seen... but, flipside, can't go too far off the beaten path. Better to take something existing and do your new take.

9. A CLEAR GOAL for the protagonist. Stakes should be high and we should know what your protagonist WANTS.

E.g. TAKEN. Protag wants to find his daughter. Stakes are life and death (her friend is made a drug addict/dies).

500 DAYS OF SUMMER scrambled the chronology of a standard rom com (but stayed within the traditional beats) and had a down ending. Something familiar; something new.

SOURCE CODE. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop as a thriller. ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop done as sci fi actioner. THE DAYS BEFORE. GROUNDHOG DAY-style loop done as sci fi actioner.

Even something like MALL COP. DIE HARD in a shopping mall with a mall cop protagonist played for laughs. We get it. We got it and went. (All the laughs in the movie were in the trailer unfortunately. But... it made a bundle.)

So ask yourself, "Is it a movie?"

Would you plop down $12 or even $1 at Red Box to watch the film version of this screenplay?

Feel free to post your logline here and tell us why it's a movie, or add to this list of factors to consider.