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“This guy is obviously a hack. If you wanna become a screenwriter, follow my method instead, which is working hard instead of smart and then complaining on the internet. BTW, I’m not a produced screenwriter, but hey, any fucking day now..!”
– random internet guy who will never do anything to advance your career.
So, you just clicked on a link that is obviously clickbaiting. Well, congratulations, you just learned one of the most important rules of screenwriting: a good title beats a good script.
Lets put a number on it, for good measure. Let’s give it the number 10. That way, you know this is a list, and you’re on a measurable countdown. That means I’m not wasting your time, and if I am, I’m only doing it for a little while. So, without further ado:
10) a good title beats a good script
Here’s the brutal fact: Most scripts don’t get read. That’s because most scripts aren’t good. Admit it, you dread reading other peoples scripts, and other people feel the same way about yours.
One of the most important insights you’ll have as a screenwriter, occurs when you start thinking like a producer and not as an artist. Here’s the sad truth: Nobody cares about you or your script. A producer, a reader, a studiohead – none of these people wake up in the morning stressing over how they can advance your career. They spend every waking moment thinking about their own. They get a shitload of scripts, most are horrible.
Imagine yourself in the position of one of these people, living just as difficult a life as yours, with limited time and energy, 1238 unopened mails in their inbox and 20 unread scripts on their desk. Which script would YOU open?
A good title indicates a good premise, a good premise indicates a good movie – worst case it can be bought and rewritten, you’ll still be credited.
Don’t worry, the next builletpoints are shorter. Here’s a picture:
9) Don’t read “Story” by Robert McKee
I don’t hate screenwriting gurus, I’m one – but for some reason, Robert McKees 1000-pages-or-so testament to his love of French movies has become a business standard – not for reading, but for telling other people to read when they approach you with a script. Ask anyone who tells you to read “Story” to sum up 3 or even just one of it’s major teachings in a single sentence and they’ll blank out and eventually tell you “You just have to read it yourself”, indirectly confessing that they themselves haven’t read it through and neither has anyone else because it fucking sucks – but hey, the book has a great title, right?
8) A good premise beats a good story
You can’t make a good story from a bad premise, promise. Given the short attention span of studio heads and humans in general, you should captivate your audience in one-two sentences. If you have to spend more than 20 seconds explaining your movie, you’re trying to cram too much into a story.
“Fucking Jane Austen: Two friends angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get sent back in time to the nineteenth century. The only way for them to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him.”
anything containing the words “me”, “my”, “misunderstood”, “experimental”, “captivates”, “metaphor”, “eternal”, “nocturnal” or “incest”.
7) screenwriting isn’t therapy.
If you’re trying to process shit, look at Woody Allen. 52 movies in and still messed up. No, writing is not therapeutic.
6) int. means inside, ext. means outside, write only what you see on screen and make every scene drive into the next
and that’s about all you need to know about the technical side of screenwriting. Oh, and enter each scene as late as possible and leave it as early as possible.
4) learn the plot points.
This is what you’ll get out of most screenwriting books, only the terminology changes:
– setup: the first 10-12 pages, where your main character (protagonist) is introduced.
– inciting incident: something fucked up happens around page 12 that breaks the stasis of the protagnoists world.
– A-story / B-story: Basically, every movie has two stories, and one of them is usually a love story and the other one about saving the world or some minor aspect of it. The two stories (spoiler) intertwine, at extremely predictable points (see: act break)
– act break: around page 30 you break into act two, which is the main meat of the story – it’s Alice when she’s actually in Wonderland. Around page 70-90, you break into part three where she decides to get the fuck out, for real.
– midpoint: in the middle of the movie, when you think it was about to end but another level of hell is just released and the protagonist is worse off than when the movie started.
These are basically the plot points you need to know in order to read and evaluate scripts, and most experienced readers turn right to these pages to see if you are as well educated as they themselves are or toss away the script – congratulations, now you can do so as well!
5) You probably didn’t notice that i skipped point 5
As long as you’re invested in the narrative you can do just about anything. Once you lose the audience, it’s almost impossible to reconnect.
3) Movie people are visually oriented
People think in one of three modalities: Feeling, hearing or seeing. People in the movie industry are predominantly visual, so if you want to communicate in their language, make them see things. Talk in pictures. Use visual metaphors. Make them Imagine. If only the poster outisde the movie theatre.
Here’s a picture, to make you read the last two points and share this article.
2) Your literary and grammatical skills are useless
Quentin Tarantinos scripts are such a mess they would make any unproduced grammar nazi cringe from reading it. Wes Andersons screenplays are filled with little drawings. A screenplays only function is to make the reader visualize the movie. If you catch yourself proofreading your script more than once, you’re procrastinating. Focus on story, characters, emotions. Nobody ever threw away a brilliant story because of a spelling mistake. Nobody ever bought a script because of excellent grammar.
1) You already know how to tell a story
In ancient Greece, people were lucky to catch a dozen plays in their lifetime. You’ve probably watched more shows than that this week already. People are natural storytellers, and your innate storytelling talent is honed daily by reading, watching TV shows or movies, by glazing over the daily funnies in your local newspaper.
You already recognize a good story when you hear one, which means it resonates with something within you – people are basically constructed from the same blueprint with a common set of wants, needs and desires, and stories fulfill these to a certain extent. That’s why most movies are about love, heroism, sex, crime, loss, gain, and probably less than half a dozen other things that’s less specific to your personal taste than you’d probably like to think. Identify the stories that appeal to you, and just apply their model to your own story.
Yes, steal it.
After all, Hollywood remakes the same pictures over and over, why shouldn’t you?
Think of whatever you´re best at in life, and on how long you spent getting there. Now, imagine how quick you could have taught this skill to your younger or less experienced self, that is, if you were willing to listen. This article is intended to shave a few years of your learning curve, and also provides you with a lot of opportunities to tell me to go fuck myself.
Before going into movies, I worked as a cartoonist for several years. It was an awesome job that let me get up every morning and produce something that I knew would be made, untouched by anyone else and actually reach its audience within few weeks of production, leaving me in total creative control and giving me room to experiment, and providing me with a steady paycheck. You know, exactly the opposite of working in the movie business.
Having grown up on a steady diet of reading 3- to 4- panel comic strips for the last 20 or so years before I began working as a cartoonist, I felt I had a fair grasp of the format by references alone. As I began drawing my small stories, I gradually began fitting punchlines, setups, minor jokes and expressions in their proper places, not realizing they fell into a standard format of the comic strip, being:
Setup – buildup – punchline.
In effect, here´s how you could tell a story in that particular format:
Setup: A guy gets stranded on a deserted island (sinking ship or whatever in the background), complaining about just being shipwrecked if you suck too much to get that to show from your visual art alone (exposition).
Buildup: Character mourns, he´s just lost everything, but resonates: “At least, things can´t get worse from here!” (We call this “dramatic suspension”, as the uninformed reader will have no clue whatsoever to what will happen next)
Punchline: We track out and see that the protagonist is not alone on the island, but in fact shares it with a 300 pound gorilla. And, to make it even funnier, the gorilla has a big heart drawn over it, to show that it´s attracted to the newcomer, or, if you´re feeling frisky and your editor allows it, a giant penis. (Remember, in comedy, gay is always funny).
I managed to sell my first strips after 3 months, and never really progressed as an artist after that – I didn´t have to, I struck some nerve with one editor and a handful of readers, and things just built from there. But I think I realized one or two things about content and form along the way.
But here´s the thing: In over 2 years of working with a daily strip, 6 days a week, meaning I´ve produced like 700 or so strips, give or take, it never felt formulaic. Of course, I repeated myself every now and then, especially when I felt a deadline coming on, and the 3 panel format probably wouldn´t be the perfect form for doing a full biography of Churchill or an introductory course to sociology (I tried), but the universe of the strip format that has provided us the stories of Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, XKCD, Peanuts and everything you´ve ever read, never felt like anything but freedom to me.
And I don´t really believe in the “rules” of storytelling, but I certainly believe in it´s principles, like, say, timing.
This article is about screenplay structure, you know, the thing that makes art students snap into a 9 hour discussion of arts vs craft, not understanding that they go hand like two perfect lovers guiding each other through life (look, I´m using emotional metaphors against my imaginary art student).
As an artist, it is your duty to rebel against conformity and convention, and guess what: As a guy who makes a lot of money from writing, it´s my privilege not to partake in that discussion, although I´ve been on both sides of it, a lot of times.
When telling a joke or a story, you don´t need guidelines (unless you´re the uncle described above). You see the end of your own story, you know where to pause for dramatic effect, and you can feel the audience out as you go. You´re an artist, and you have your story. But hey, you´ve also tried cramming them into a two hour screenplay, right? And if you nailed it, i have nothing but respect for you. If you felt one or two things lacking, lost oversight somewhere in the middle or got rejected even though you´d put all the images you´ve had in your head the last 5 years in the script, read on.
And also, for the sake of argument: If you believe I´m full of bullshit, pop your favorite DVD in the player and see if my model below is not about 85% right, or more.
A word on technique
As a practitioner of brazilian ju jitsu, I had my ass handed to me the first times in the gym, and by “the first times” I´m talking about 3 times a week for 6 months. Or, who am I lying, that still happens. I learned the lesson every martial arts movie tried to teach me throughout the 80´s and 90´s, but somehow you´ve just got to experience it for yourself. I didn´t see the point of the techniques, tried sparring my own way, trying to outsmart my way smarter opponents, got frustrated, got injured, and slowly realized the techniques were nothing but applied anatomical principles, you know, the anatomy we all share, and that every time I spent hours coming up with some new shit myself, it had already being discovered and cultivated to perfection by some brazilian with funny ears and a first name starting with an R, and the “art” in martial arts comes AFTER you´ve drilled the basic scales of the sport a few times, and start discovering your own style on top of that, and it´s really unlimited what you can do. Now, after spending my high school- and college days writing and making sweet, beautiful love to millions of girls, with emphasis on the first, I can finally deliver a solid beating to all the high school- or college athletes who show up on my gym, thinking they have some sort of fighting talent – guess what, they do, but guess what #2: Technique beats talent. And guess what #3: The only thing that is worth a damn is a combination of the two.
Go on, tell them they´re not artists, to their faces.
My first writing jobs for the screen were television punch ups (where you basically just add jokes), and commercials. Having being primed by a few years of writing comics, and even jokes for morning radio shows, I managed to deliver to the point of at least not getting fired (which, basically, is one of the most important skills to develop), but I spent some time cracking the 3 act structure of a movie, to the point of obsessing over it. Hell, I even wrote a 9 panel comic about it, at one point:
Like everybody, I read the literature, that´s been written by people who spend all their writing time writing about how you should write, thus never actually writing any movies, and a lot of it is good: I loved Blake Snyders “Save the cat” (a little hommage is even right there in my comic), although I don´t share Snyders points of the second act (or maybe I do – maybe I´ve just misread it) or what he insists makes a good story (usually Sandra Bullock-based), I tried reading Robert McKees “Story”, but let´s face it – it goes on and on, and tries talking around structure by namedropping European art flicks, and at times seems even less informative than, say, a 9 panel comic, Syd Field gets to anal about his schematics, and the best I ever read was Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennons “Writing movies
for fun and profit”, which explains the three act structure like this:
“Act 1: Put your main character up in a tree. Act 2: Throw rocks at him. Act 3: Get him down”.
The rest of the books goes on to tell the difference between agents and managers (one wears suits, the other jeans) and where in L.A. to find the best burgers (you´ll have to buy the book for that one).
That´s all well and done. But the second act is where 95% of screenplays go to die, and the 3 act structure really didn´t make sense to me until I started dividing the movie INTO FOUR PIECES. I give you:
The four blocks
And this, coincidentally, is where I tell you how to write a screenplay.
So, I´ve never seen this written anywhere: That doesn´t mean that over 9000 people before me haven´t discovered it – it only mean that I spent way too long realizing it, and maybe, so did you.
So, forget everything you´ve read about 3-act structure, and whenever you watch or write a movie from now, divide it into four.
For the sake of simplicity, lets say that a 100 minute script is a 100 pages, and that will be your perfect movie (it´s more like 90-120 minutes, but hey, play along): So each of these blocks is exactly 25 pages and thus 25 minutes long.
Here´s what happens in the four parts of the movie, and as promised, I will fuck myself if I´m wrong.
BLOCK 1: START
Back to the basic argument about rules: The start, or the beginning of a movie, is where you introduce your main character, your hero. You don´t bring him or her in at the 75 minute mark – that´s just common sense. Remember, you´re not your drunk uncle at a party telling a joke, so from the very start you set up
– Who is this story about?
First impressions are formed easily, so introduce your character in a context that defines them. That is not a rule, that´s a principle of human psychology: If you meet a random stranger that´s shouting and crying, you attribute those traits to the person – if you meet a friend behaving in the same manner, you attribute it to context and assume something is wrong. So, make the main character a friend of the audience. This is one of the basic principles of storytelling that work, because that´s one of the basic principles how your brain works.
– what do they want in life, and why?
Then they get it, and you wrap your movie at the 10 minute mark.
Hey, I´m kidding. Look, this is not a story, unless you´re a four year old.
“I was heading home, then I got home”.
This, however, is:
“I was heading home, then I met a mean dog that tried to bite me, and I had to run like crazy, barely managing to climb into my bedroom window”.
Ok, it´s not a brilliant story, but it´s one step up, because of one thing: Conflict, the dog.
So, after setting up the world for 10 pages, BOOM:
Page 10-12: Call to action. This is where Trinity meets Neo in “The Matrix”, this is where Luke Skywalkers aunt and uncle gets killed, this is where Iron Man 1 gets locked in a cave or The Mandarin makes an apperance in Iron Man 3.
Go on, check your favourite movie.
So, the next thing that happens is that the hero doesn´t do anything particular about it: Neo is not ready to pop pills, Luke does what Luke does best and bitches, and Iron Man gets stuck in a cave or keeps fucking around with nightmares and shit.
Page 12-25: You keep building the world and the pressure around the reluctant main character. BASICALLY: This is where you put ALL YOUR ESTABLISHING SCENES, until you enter:
BLOCK TWO: (page 25-50, ie to the middle of the movie): THE HERO´S PART
Where the hero says “fuck it, I´ll do it”, and ENTERS THE NEW WORLD. From here, everything moves in ONE DIRECTION: Towards the GOAL, the way the hero PERCEIVES IT. This is the hero´s part, where everything goes fairly well: This is the part of the story you include in the trailer, the story the audience wants: With training montages, titties, life on the bright side.
THIS IS ALSO WHERE YOU SET UP YOUR SECOND STORY, which is basically your love story (or, if your main story is a love story, then this is a small adventure to make it harder to get the girl).
Everything is well and good, and leads up to the middle of the movie, which I like to call:
MIDPOINT: FALSE END
A 90-120 page story is a long haul, and the traditional 2nd act is where most stories go to die: About midways, desperate writers start inventing problems, or in the case of action movies, turning the volume up to 11 to compensate for lack of content. This is where CONFLICT enters, or the dog in the short anecdote somewhere above: You throw a monkey wrench into the smooth running engine of the movie, and 99% of all movies do this exactly around the middle.
Go on, check Netflix or your favorite DVD, I have time.
Neo gets told he is not the One. The Avengers seem unable to cooperate to save the earth. In every lovestory, the hero either thinks he has got the girl, the hero thinks he´s got the girl, and Iron Man 3 thinks he´s got the real Mandarin, but wait for it..
In a traditional buddy cop movie, you have the big case (story), and the friendship (lovestory), and both have to go to hell at one point. This is where they tell each other to fuck off.
And then, we enter:
BLOCK 3: (page 50-75 or so, for good measure): THE BAD GUYS PART
Everything goes well here.. for the bad guy.
Push your hero to the brink of suicide, and most important for all: Make the audience wonder, along with the hero, how the hell he´s gonna pull out of this one.
This is where you put all the scenes where bad shit happens to your character, and this is where thinking of your traditional “2nd act” as two blocks really fucking help.
Your one goal here: make it seem impossible. And have one trick up your sleeve, that actually intrigues the audiences interest, because we´re about to enter:
BLOCK 4 VICTORY, AFTER A HELL OF A LOT OF ACTION
In short, this is where you:
– Make the hero realize what he was SUPPOSED to do, instead of what he THOUGHT he should do.
– He doesn´t know how? That´s why you introduced the friendship- or love story, guess what: friendship and love conquers all. Even in Spinal Tap, you know, the movie they “improvised” (around this exact structure).
– You also pull out your big action arsenal, and big emotional speeches, and if you´re really a master of your craft, you make them happen at the same time for maximum impact. If you´ve written a beautiful eulogy or a sexy action sequence, and it didn´t quite work – it´s because you haven´t earned it. You know why the action sequence in the beginning of the second (or was it the third?) Matrix movie didn´t work? No buildup, eveyone has superpowers and they didn´t have to work for it. You´ve got to charge it to unload it.
Holy fuck, I just said “You´ve got to charge it to unload it”, that has to be some storytelling axiom that I was the first person ever to invent!
Well, as most readers of this blog now, I don´t like to edit (editing is something I do when I´m paid to, I haven´t reread a single of the posts here), but I think I´ve covered basically everything, at the end of the fourth block, which the traditional 3rd act. In the words of William Goldman: “Give the audience what they want, just not in the way they expect it”.
What to the audience want? To be entertained, to be thrilled. This is where your talent comes in.
Nobody can teach you how to become an artist, but every craftsman can tell you a little something about their craft, some more than others.
And here´s two tips I´m real confident giving, except what I´ve tried postulating above:
If you wanna be a writer, watch a lot of movies,
if you wanna be a writer, write.
Now go do both.
And, if you like, try my four blocks on for size and see if they don´t fit somehow.
Email me here for all your screenwriting guru book deals or visual concept art inquiries.
Working as a writer, people often assume that my favorite pastime is indulging in 90-120 page scripts written by people who´ve spent considerable less time than myself learning the craft. On average I get sent about 2-3 scripts a week, in addition to what I read professionally. I even get the odd offer of writing out complete scripts for no money, by people who´ve spent a few hours crafting the trailer moments of a story and just need someone to “write it out”, with offers of co-writing credits (..) and money to come. The story usually comes with a promise of being “kick ass” and “like nothing I´ve ever seen”, and I´m met with little or no understanding when I more or less politely dismiss the proposal, because 1) It´s kick ass (see above), and 2) people assume that writers are unimaginative people walking around in a story vacuum, desperately wanting to be pitched a series of incoherent action scenes with you as the protagonist so that they finally can start filling out the blanks that will make your incoherent coke scribblings on paper napkins from In & Out Burger in to an actual screenplay.
Ideas come to everybody, persistence is a gift bestowed upon the few. The art of the screenplay lays solely in its execution.
Asking a screenwriter to read through your script, is the same as asking any worker to employ their craft on their spare time. So, If you´re the kind of person who don´t mind showing the doctor at a dinner party your hemorrhoids, or ask a carpenter to furnish your house for free because it´s a kick ass house, then by all means, send your script to the screenwriter you just met or found online. I usually read for good friends and colleagues, but for everyone else I charge a lot – a minimum of $600 for a read through and feedback. You´ll get professional readers to do it for less than a tenth of that fee, although I can´t imagine for the life of me why they´d do that. Such services can be rendered for $50 on The Black List, and I highly encourage you to contact them before you contact me, for the sake of you and me both.
If you should ever, by some freak coincidence, run into me in the aforementioned In & Out-burger or other places where I try to avoid people from the business, and still insist on me reading your masterpiece, I must insist you read these little guideline first, entitled:
Why your screenplay doesn´t work.
1. Your protagonist, based on yourself, is not interesting for anyone else.
Everybody writes their first screenplay about themselves, and react with massive disappointment when the world fails to see what kind of brilliant protagonist – and also possible lead actor – this is. The last couple of years, 90% of the screenplays I´ve read fall into these categories:
* Young, brilliant man, misunderstood by everyone around him
- Young, brilliant man, misunderstood by everyone around him because they´re idiots
- Young, anorectic- or overweight girl, chronically disappointed because everyone around her are idiots and not sensitive enough to her needs which she has no clue about herself, also she wears to much fucking wool
- gangster with potential for emotional improvement, twist: Is really only looking for love
- Person trying to make movie or finish unwritten masterpiece but fails to do so, see point #1 and #2.
Let me give you the brutal lesson I´ve learned in all my years in this business, in one even more brutal clause:
Nobody cares about you, no one is gonna pay $8.38 to see a movie about you and even less pay $10 million to get it made, so you´ll have to write a movie that the studio trusts to be seen by as many people as fucking possible or go film it yourself with no money at all.
2. You´re not interested in feedback, only praise
You won´t get any praise for your first draft of your first script. Everything in life that has any value demands an effort, but for some reason I keep running into people who´ve spent 10 years learning to play the guitar, 5 years earning an engineering degree, 30 years realizing they´re gay or 47 years to realize that they´re not happy working in a bank, who nevertheless think they can hammer down a screenplay in a week and be declared some sort of storytelling genius.
This isn´t based on some notion that you´ll have to rewrite until you´re late into retirement to produce anything of value. Hell, I even wrote the article on How to write a screenplay in 24 hours.
But, as a general rule, it should take longer to write a script than it takes to read it.
The true brilliance of a play, the wish to truly write your magnum opus, your masterpiece, really surfaces after you´ve been told a few times that you´re not good enough, considered giving up because no one gets you even though the stories you imagine in your head are way better than the ones you see on screen, and then experienced the colossal and overwhelming fear that comes with realizing you might die without having the world hear your story or have it see you as you see yourself, then realize a couple of painful things about the nature of yourself and the world that really makes you a better writer and then put everything you have into your next script, in a story that really matters to you. And if you´ve done that, you´re a way better writer than me, and really, you should be uninterested in what I, or anyone else, have to say about your script.
There, I´m rid of most of my aggression. The next pointers will be shorter.
3. Your story dies in the second act, due to lack of conflict.
You´ve got a story with a beginning, an end and a lot of fillers in between that point in no particular direction. A three act structure is supposed to look like this:
Act 1: Your hero wants something, doesn´t dare to do it, then decides to do it anyway.
Act 2: Things go good or bad (pick one), but since a cinematic story is of a certain length, you have to toss a monkey wrench into the gears of the story about midways to keep the audience from sleeping, in a so called “false ending”, so things go brutally to hell about midways.
Act 3: At this point, neither you or your hero have any idea how to get out of the situation, so as a writer, you have to make me as the reader/viewer curious, to make us happy when – SPOILER ALERT – the hero manages it anyway, or achieves something way better than the selfish goal he set out to reach, like – let me toss in something completely out of the blue here – true love.
The point where most writers fail is around midways, where you get the so called “second act sag”. This is where all your ideas have been spent, and you really have to work to find out wheter screenplay is a real story and not just a random anecdote that you tried to getting onto the big screen to feel better about yourself.
PS: Apparently, I was lying with regards to the length of these pointers, I got annoyed again.
4. One idea per script, please
Your first script is the place where all the images you´ve had in your head since you took an introductionary course to film making in high school, and are thus without any narrative function or the slightest trace of being interconnected in any way, shape or form. The compass in your story should be able to be summed up in one sentence, and that sentence should contain the following elements: somebody wanting something, something being in the way and some sort of promise of a quest with an alternative solution.
5. Internal humor isn´t funny for anyone else than you and that dorky pal you keep talking about from your study days
Humor has it´s outspring in common references, and “intelligent humor” stems from slightly more marginal references and it´s main function is making you feel smarter than those who don´t know that particular reference. Intelligent humor does not mean referencing some Adult Swim-show from 2006 or, heaven forbid, Dr. Who, and at that moment when The Big Bang Theory beat Two and a Half Men as the highest rated comedy on television, the hard lived myth that nerd culture is niche culture was killed, once and for all. Nerd culture is the most mainstream there is, Star Wars is the most common reference point of them all and the joke that 42 is the answer of life, university and everything isn´t even accepted in the most socially ankward of subreddits anymore. Also, if you have to explain to me that the joke I just had to read three times in your script actually is really funny because your drunk buddy or support worker laughed when it actually happened and you probably had to be there, it´s not a good joke and you can go to hell.
6. Go to hell
Seriously, if you´re not willing to walk a few dark paths in your script or on your way to writing it (produced screenwriters will know what I mean), you might as well drop it.
7. Your scenes are trivial
If you´ve ever written dialogue that look like this:
Gangster: Hi, how are you?
Gangster 2: I´m fine, you?
..then see point 6.
Enter the scene as late as possible, exit it as early as possible, people go to the movies to see people who live the lifes they don´t dare live for themselves. What´s not relevant to tell your story, you might as well just drop. A movie is about the dramatic high point in one or more peoples lives: The story of Abraham Lincoln when he had a flu in 8th grade or the tale of Captain America when he was frozen in ice for 40 years is not anything anybody want to see, but just as I was writing this I realized there are people amongst my readers who´d probably take that as a challenge, and I wish you all the luck in the world – I´ll even post it if I think it´s a good read.
8. Your ideas are good, but undigested
Even tough I rarely come across what I´d describe as a good script, I´ve just as rarely come across script that are completely pointless, in the regard that they usually bring one or two good ideas to the table. However, more often than not, I ask myself if a feature film really is the best vehicle for the same particular idea. If you could tell the same life lesson in 140 characters on twitter as in a 2 hour movie, I suggest you do the former. If you´ve got a script that´s based on a one-note-joke, I suggest that you tell that joke instead, and if you´re movies pitch is possible to distill down to a single picture, you might have a bigger talent for advertising than as a cinematic storyteller.
If you still insist on working your idea out in a feature format, remember that the 90-120 pages that´s the industry standard, where everything is put under the microscope and blown up a thousand times, takes the same amount of work as a 500 page novel where you can get away with literary digressions, adjective feasts or introspective passages whenever you see fit. In a movie, everything on screen happens for a reason, and if you just rushed through the last 30 pages of writing to get to your action climax, your reader or audience will have exactly as much joy of watching it as you had writing it: Exactly none.
Most half-assed scripts I´ve read is like a stockpile of half digested ideas, spread out on the floor and connected in no particular order.
To take the analogy of the laborer one step further: You wouldn´t craft a chair with three legs, not lay the floor or skip installing the window in your bathroom because “people will realize what´s supposed to be there”. You wouldn´t build a hallway that didn´t lead anywhere or keep the posters from your teenage years up on the walls because “it was cool at one point”, or put the concrete on the roof because you felt “it should be there somewhere”. But you keep writing unfoundamented characters with single motivations or functions, skip logistical or logical groundwork, keep outdated jokes in the script or put them in the mouth of the completely wrong character or out of context, or write up to a scene that never really happens.
It´s like a kid trying to tell a joke or show a magic trick without proper rehearsal. You keep a brace smile, and look forward to when the junior performer matures to the point of not storming off and into the bathroom in protest when you gently suggest they should at least give it 2-3 takes before trying to show off. By the way, most movie professionals I´ve worked to never really get there.
I´m often asked how long it takes to write a script. Well, in my experience it takes between 24 hours and 24 months, give or take. But here´s the thing:
When it´s good enough, it´s good enough. And when it is, you really know it – as your desperate “please give compliment me”-grin has subtly been replaced by the more seasoned and hard earned “call me when you´ve read it, and let´s talk business”-smile, and you´l cringe whenever somebody asks you to read their script, because you know it won´t be good enough, and that they won´t listen to a word you say, and that they have a long, twisted and strange path ahead of them that in retrospect they wouldn´t change for anything in the world, because they will come out on the other end with a god damned beautiful piece of work that only they could write, after learning everything you tried to tell them, by themselves.
And by the way, I´m on twitter: @Thescreenplayer
Having worked as an actor for several years, it´s easy to come to the realization that
a) it´s often easier to play larger parts than smaller parts, and
b) you often get cast in the latter, not the former.
The reason for b) is obvious, but the reason for a) might not be so clear for everybody. However, the same applies to screenwriting. Here´s why.
When you, as an actor, step on to a foreign set, you don´t know the codes, you haven´t been a part of the project from the get-go and thus, you don´t know the temperature of the set or the expression of the movie. After watching one of my childhood role models stumble on to a set of younger people and completly blowing his lines, trying to fit in, I couldn´t help but cringe and wonder why. The actor, known for his organic and tempered portrayals fell victim to a fit of grotesque over-acting, playing a character that seemed completely out of context. Hard to watch on set, and even harder on screen – I guess a thousand times so for the performer.
Luckily, when writing, we are often given more than half a day to get whatever we´re doing to work. But after spending months or even years on your main character, the antagonists, love interests, the quirky best friend or whatever, you sometimes end with a minor scene that just seems to trip the whole pace of the movie. Some minor character, possibly only a function – or actually, probably so – appears behind the counter at 7-11, delivering a vital piece of information or getting shot in the head with nobody really caring. The character seems contrived, with no prior life before the scene, and nothing going on after.
This is where weak writing shines through your art like an open sore.
This is, luckily, also the place you´re allowed to cheat a bit.
When crafting solid characters, you know, the kind you´d want to spend 1.5-2 hours in a theatre with, or even 7 seasons on your favourite network, you have to do the groundwork. Your character becomes your friend, that you carry around in the back of your head while not writing your story, you get annoyed with it and laugh when it does something funny – a bit of warning here, this might also be the warning signs of schizophrenia, but a lot of great artists had issues so fuck it. The apperance of your minor characters might be a result of a sudden rewrite, a minor feedback or whatever, and allthough you don´t have 6-12 months to write it, they deserve to live, and by live I mean “live”.
When jumping in for half a day to play a minor character, you know, the best friends best friends who tells you that your love interest has been sleeping all over town, or whatever, you still, or even more than usual, have to pull up your actors manual and refresh the 5 questions, or whatever kids are calling them nowadays:
– Where am I?
– What am I doing?
– Where did I come from?
– What´s my relation to the other characters?
– What do I want?
By asking yourself these 5 short questions, you automatically open the door to a larger backstory, than, say: “I´m a guy who stands behind this counter and waits for that dark haired guy to come in so I can launch my line at him”, which makes you seem like a robot.
The 5 questions don´t need to be known by anyone else but yourself, but the result of asking them, gives your character a life outside of the scene, and makes it look like an actual human being instead of just some expositional veihicle, which is, basically, what it really is.
You can also play around with the questions, or more so, the answers. For example “what´s my relation to the other character(s)?”. A good example would be Zack Galafinakis character in The Hangover 2, which I just watched on my plane from Iceland, which is the reason I´m using just that example. Galafinakis, when introduced, is in total awe of one of the characters, indifferent to one of the others – and then, a bit later, really dislikes a fourth member of the crew. This is basic impro, and was probably written more or less in the script, but it shows the characters sense of self in relation to others, and can be a great tool to fool around with. Have your character dislike someone that´s higher up in the hieararchy than themselves, or really idolize someone, without any explanation – and see if it doesn´t bring some sort of life to your character.
On the “where am I going”-question, just toss in a few wild suggestions, and see if that doesn´t change your character: “I´m really going home to have sex”, “I´m too late to a dinner party”, or “I´m going anywhere but home – maybe someone will hang out?”.
All of these change the nature of the character, and bring them to life – it will also possibly bring some sorely needed conflict in your scene, if your scene is just bringing the story forward without any soul or tension to it.
But this is not where I´m going with this article, not really. Because, you see, I´ve got one more trick up my sleeve, that gives me instant access to all of these character facets. Again, as with ANYTHING on this blog, I probably – no, definitly – haven´t invented it. I´ve, like you, seen it on screen, read it in books, or whatever – again, it works, and it´s this:
When writing a minor character, with no specific relation to the story, I always, always substitute a friend, or someone I know.
It might be an old teacher, a co-worker, or even a character from another movie – the thing is, it´ll be my interpretation of the character, and most likely just one facet of them, so the chances are nobody, including them, will realize that this is what you´re actually doing.
I can´t stand the “You have to know where your character went to school and what they had for breakfast”-bullshit. I can´t remember for the life of me where my best friend whent to school, and I have no idea what my mum had for breakfast. However, I know exactly how they´d react if they were behind the counter of a starbucks, and a desperate terrorist came running in. Actually, I know it so well that I wouldn´t put them in that particular scene. I´d put my wannabe heroic coworker (whose main claim to fame is playing through the Final Fantasy-series) and self proclaimed martial artist friend with poor hearing there instead, he´d bring some action to it, and get a few laughs along the way.
And there you have my screenwriting lesson for the day:
If you have a minor character that you don´t know how to write, substitute a funny friend for it.
Could have told you that way easier, right?
Hey, here´s a favourite soundtrack of mine for you to enjoy while writing, as a compensation: http://youarelistening.to/ – an ambient soundtrack with a police radio from L.A. superimposed.
No go write something good. See you!
Art is never finished, only abandoned – Leonardo da Vinci
Writing is rewriting – every asshole who never finished writing anything, ever.
One of the questions that gets tossed around most when it comes to screenwriting, is how long it takes to write a screenplay. Speaking from my own experience, I´ll say that it takes somewhere between 24 hours and 3.5 years. Now, how long it takes to make a good one is a whole other scenario. But most “writers” you´ll run into never actually finish one.
Here´s how I wrote a screenplay in 24 hours. I´m gonna make a habit of forwarding this to every person I run into who claim to carry around a great story, yet don´t have time to write it. And in a vigilant act of internet bravery, I even included the screenplay I wrote, unedited, so you can tell the world how you could do it better. I´d say it´s about 51% of what it could be if I spent more time on it.
That actually makes it better than a few I´ve written, and also a few I´ve read – that made it into movies.
A bit of backstory
Sometimes, the stories closest to your heart can be the most difficult to write. Just look at the last half-written screenplay you made with yourself as the protagonist: Somewhere along the line you lost track, because you tried to put all your great ideas into it, and let´s face it, you also lack a bit in the self insight departement and people weren´t really that interested in your own personal story. Your “young writer in his 20´s” script became your “young writer in his 30´s” script and somewhere along the lines you started writing passive aggressive posts about how movies that were actually being made suck – hey, I´m just taking wild swings here, and I digress.
The tweet pitch
In the middle of a pitch meeting a while ago, I pitched 10 or so stories. I added one that was based on a drunk tweet I had made a few days before, after watching “Home Alone”, just to show some range. The rest were stories I´ve spent considerable time crafting. Guess which one got the attention?
Hint, it was this one:
Alone again:Macaulay Culkin(33) is home alone on christmas, preparing to end it all, when burglars break into his house for his child star $
Check it, that´s 140 characters, bitch. And before you get any bright ideas: It´s WGA registered #1654261.
Long story short: I wrote it out with my brilliant writing partner. We had a few sit downs, wrote it in record time, while I was working on some other scripts that I couldn´t for the life of me navigate through. This one wrote itself, because, like you do when reading that one line, and like the producers I was pitching it to, you see the movie unfolding before you, you know exactly what you want to see in that particular story, and you can even think of a few surprising and possibly dark twists, obvious homages to the first movies, and the movie trailer itself where a drug-hazed adult puts up cartoon traps with real life consequences. We even had a scene with Macaulay shouting on the telephone “You´re not my real mom”, to which Catherine O´Hara who played his mom in the 2 first movies completly agrees and wonders why the fuck he´s calling her every christmas eve. Guess who saves Macaulay in the end.
The obvious problems arose because, well, we wrote this script based on the biggest Fox-franchise of all time, with only one possible lead, who´s probably gets 15-20 offers from film school students to play himself every week. The good news is, I was so afraid that somebody else would come up with the story that we wrote it in a couple of weeks, between other jobs, meaning the actual time spent writing it was probably less than one week, and it was actually better than the movie I´d spent the last two years “writing”, i.e. talking about and procrastinating. The movie, as they say, wrote itself.
However, that was not my 24 hour script. This was:
Realizing that the 30th anniversary of the “Karate Kid” movie was next year, I started playing with the idea of William Zabka (bad guy Johnny) and Ralph Macchio (good guy Karate Kid) arguing who´d win in a real fight. The inspirations were clear: The sweet Ralph Macchio had made a Funny or Die video where he tried to be bad, William Zabka had made a music video for “No More Kings”, the brilliant “Sweep the Leg”, where he played his old character obsessed with the 1984 fight: Knowing nothing of the actors personalities I wrote characters for them where Zabka was now a drunk, forever typecast as a bad guy, and Macchio the opposite, both blaming the movie for the direction of their carrers. I even called it “Sweep the leg”. I´m not claiming originality here, not in the premise at least, but it had not been done, and I suddenly saw the path unfolding before me on how to write this movie: Zabka wanting to becoming good, with Macchio turning to the dark side, a big climax that mirrored the fight in the 1984 original with the now late 40-s to early 50-s ensemble of the original movie, filled to the bursting point with popculture references.
Luckily, It was a saturday morning and I had nothing to do for the next 24 hours.
Also, luckily, I´d written a few scripts before, so I knew what the major obstacles were. One of the major obstacles with this one were that certain talent necessary to produce this movie were, how shall we put it, fulfilled when it came to referencing the decades old blockbuster (much like with the Home Alone scenario). But I felt a story coming on, and when you do that, you sit down and you write.
Here´s how I did it, and if I can do it, you can do it. And what you write, you can always edit. A first draft feels good, actually more than often it feels better than the 13th draft, although that´s where the quality is usually found.
Note that I don´t claim originality in a single of these pointers below. Just like you, I´ve read the basic literature on screenwriting, opposed to it, rediscovered some of it by myself, and been on both sides of the age old and totally uninteresting “art vs. craft” discussion. Nobody invented these rules, they came to be, I don´t care, they work.
#1: Know your compass.
If you don´t have a compass, you don´t have a movie. A movies compass is the premise of the story, summed up in one sentence. Write it down on a post-it note, smack it onto your computer screen. If you can´t get it down in one line, the “one idea per script”-idea, you´ll get lost. This I promise you. Whenever you get lost in your story, return to your compass. The compass, the logline, is the one place you have to spend some time editing, and you do that before you begin writing the script.
#2: Care about your story
The story needs to be important to you, as it has to be for your character(s). If not, you´ll find yourself stranded when your and your characters passion runs out. On that note: If it´s too important to you, or too big to handle – yet – put it off, let it grow in the back of your subconscious until it´s ripe for writing.
#3: Don´t think – feel
This should be your second post-it note on your screen. Over-intellectualizing is the death of any story, unless you´ve got 5 years and you´re willing to go to hell and back, which you should – but not for this script. Thinking is for your spare time – this is work, and you´ve watched so many hundreds of movies that unconsciously you know exactly were you need to go, but you´re probably stopping yourself aiming for perfection. What was your greatest night ever, was it planned or was it spontaneous and free? You´re gonna be awake for this one, so enjoy the ride.
#4: Don´t edit – don´t research
Editing and research are the pitfalls of screenwriting – they should always be done, but either as a result of a prolonged period of obsessing about something – boom, free research – or after you´ve written your first draft. The problem with research is that it feels like working, and can be an escape from actually doing so. If you´re writing a movie about Facebook, you should be writing about the people behind it (oh, wait, that has been done), and you don´t need to know about coding algorithms to be able to write about people coding. Throw in some bullshit, and it may actually make it into the actual movie. Is your protagonist doing a monologue on the conquests of Alexander The Great? Invent it – you can revisit the facts later. Whenever you go online to search for a piece of trivia, you break concentration, and you´re guaranteed to lose 15-30 minutes every time. So here´s one of the best writing tips I´ve ever got: Write the letters “TK” wherever you feel like you should go back and edit, then search for that phrase later. No English word contains the letters “TK”, so this just marks wherever your script contains placeholders. Or use an asterisk* or whatever, just don´t break concentration. Even better still: Just write something.
#5: Writers block does not exist
When I quit smoking cigarettes after 10 years, people asked me how I did it. That pissed me off. The answer is simple: You don´t put fucking cigarettes in your mouth. It´s the same when people ask how I “overcome writers block”. First of all, I see no reason to get it. Second, whenever I don´t know what to write, I just write something. That´s how you overcome writers block: You write.
#6: Move forward
Your story should always move forward. Instead of analyzing your script back and forth, everything you write should go through this filter: “Is what I´m writing now bringing my story and characters forward?”. If not, scrap it. Or, actually, you might just have to relocate your scene to the right part of the script.
#7: HIT THE MARKS
This is the biggest piece of the puzzle, so I´ll divide this into several pointers instead of one big one. As mentioned earlier, I haven´t “invented” a single on of these. You´ve probably read Robert McKees “Story”, Blake Snyders “Save the Cat”, Syd Fields “The Screenwriters Bible” or whatever it´s called, Joseph Campbells “The Hero with the thousand faces”, or even claimed to read Aristotles “Poetics”, which all basically say the same thing. And even Aristotle stole wildly from the movies he saw, so I don´t feel bad about “ripping” the points from any of these masters, but highly encourage you to buy their books – seriously.
Here´s how you structure your screenplay. Just by tailoring your story around this skeleton, it´s easy to see where you should put your scenes.
ACT 1 (first 30 or so pages): Everything is established.
page 1-10: Meet the hero. Put everything that´s essential about your character in here. Bring him as FAR FROM THE GOAL as possible. He wants to be rich? Guess what: Now he´s dirt poor. This gives you the longest journey, the biggest wish – the biggest momentum. Put that fucker down in the dirt.
page 10-12: Call to action. Also called Shit happens. If you´re writing, say, a 30th reunion Karate Kid-story, this is where you plant the seed that the characters should fight.
Page 12-25: The hero fucks around. Not ready to take on the challenge yet, here is where you put every scene that builds up to to the inevitable:
Page 25: Your hero embarks on the journey. From here, there´s no more back-and-forth: If there is, jam it before page 25. This is where your hero says “fuck it, I´ll do it”, and we go into:
ACT TWO (page 30-90 or so):
The second act is a fucking long haul. The principles most people miss when writing the second act is:
a) ACT TWO IS ACTUALLY TWO PIECES, and
b) ACT TWO IS ACTUALLY TWO STORIES THAT´S HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME.
I´ll explain b) first: If you have a main story that´s a quest, you also have a love story here. If your main story is a love story, you also have a quest that starts here. AND: In order to make it a fucking story, and not just an anecdote, you pull the lovers as far away from each other as possible, or you make the quest unreachable. I´ll touch on the love part later, read this through before starting your 24 hour journey.
FIRST HALF OF ACT TWO (30-50 OR SO): EVERYTHING IS FINE.
Your hero tries to do what he is supposed to do. Put your trailer moments here. Remeber: Everything needs to be moving forward, and pointing in one direction: If things go a bit bad, then a bit good, then is OK, then is slightly less than OK, then slightly better: Fuck that, that´s not fiction, that´s life. People don´t go to the movies to see that shit. In this part, everything is going fine.
FALSE ENDING (exactly midways):
This is where, in real life, and also in screenwriting, most people give up: The hero here EITHER THINKS HE´S WON, or HE THINKS HE HAS LOST. Everything in the first half of act 2 points directly to this.
No matter if your hero thinks he´s won or lost in whatever he set out to do here, THIS IS WHERE YOU FUCK HIM OVER:
SECOND HALF OF ACT TWO (55-90): THINGS GO TO HELL.
Your main mission here is to get your hero in an even worse spot than when he started. The girl? She starts hating him. The bad guy? He seems to get the girl instead. The protagonists latent alcoholism? Guess what, bitch: It blossoms.
THIRD ACT: (PAGE 90 – wherever): YOU GIVE THE HERO WHAT HE WANTS, BUT NOT LIKE HE OR THE AUDIENCE IMAGINED.
This is where you get a bit crafty. You have to do your worst to bring your hero to the brink of suicide or whatever, then you have to pull him out of the mud, or even better, have him do it himself. It´s about doing the right thing, with a hell of a lot of action around it. Actually, you´ve probably had this scene in your head all the way, the problem is you´ve got to earn it during act 2, or else it feels like bullshit.
You remember when I talked about Act 2 being two stories? This is where they collide. Well, let me give you a few examples:
– In “Pineapple Express”, two guys run from crazed drugdealers (quest), and have a struggling friendship (lovestory), then, after “breaking up”, they realize they need to work together in order to take on the drug lords (to make it even more dramatic, the Seth Rogen character has to rescue his friend, James Franco, after alienating him).
– In “Step Brothers”, the two guys are forced to ´grow up´ (quest) to save their parents marriage, and have a struggling friendship (lovestory), then, after “breaking up”, they realize they need to work together to help fix it (to make it even more dramatic, The Will Ferrel character has to rescue his friend, John C. Reilly, after alienating him).
So, this is actually where you put your awesome emotional- or action climaxes, preferably both, having them collide and happen at the same time for max effect, after fucking everything up for your hero or heroes.
This is also where you nest up every loose thread that you spun out throughout your movie, or in the case of the two movies above: Not do it.
#8: Write down the marks
Seriously. Write down the marks, and put them in your script: Just keep writing your scenes, until you hit the mentioned page. Then, realizing you´re a bit over, copypaste the scene into the part of the script that it actually belongs.
#9: Write your script.
Shit will get in your way. There´s even a place for a little bit of life in between intense work sessions: Keep your mood up, enjoy what you are doing, and don´t take life or your art so seriously. As mentioned (I think I mentioned it, I didn´t rewrite or edit this post), you can always edit your script later. And, while in the mood, it´s not a bad idea to watch one, MAYBE two movies. You´ll be in the mentality of making things work, and watching a movie while working heavily on your own project, will make everything relate do what you´re doing. Personally, I watched “Olympus is falling” and got slightly drunk, which both helped me realize what we´re doing is not rocket science.
#10: Fade out.
Go ahead, crash. You´ve earned it. After reaching page 90, 72, 120 or whatever, you´ve deserved some rest. You should probably have taken a nap between intense writing sessions before finishing, sorry, I forgot to tell you that. It feels great to a script, any script, and now is not the time to realize it sucks. After all, most people never get this far, getting to those magic words: “The end”.
Here, for you to scrutinize, get annoyed by, or possibly even get slightly inspired by if only due to the fact that I managed to hammer out 92 pages before the weekend was over, is my script, SWEEP THE LEG, written in 24 hours.
I´m looking forward too reading yours.
Just kidding, I don´t read scripts unless I´m paid to. But seriously, good luck. You´ll feel better from writing your story, and it might even break down a mental barrier or two. I seriously think it will.
Edit (which I said I wouldn´t do): Here´s the script as the Black List link is members only: Sweep the leg