November 15, 2014 – Los Angeles: So you want to write a screenplay? Why you should, and why you shouldn’t give up.
Hello, and welcome to the first installment of The Art and Craft of Professional Screenwriting. In this series we will be breaking down every aspect of the art and craft of the professional screenwriter. All the critical elements of the screenwriting craft will be defined, broken down and demystified. There will be a new article each issue, and by the end of the series you will have all the tools necessary to put your talent to work on a professionally written, sellable feature film screenplay.
So here’s a question: Are there any rules to writing a screenplay? Of course, you can’t have a game without rules. But there are no limits to what you can do as a screenwriter. In the months to come these rules will be broken down into doable actions, and all aspects of the screenwriting process will be demystified. Welcome.
Each issue will have three things in it:
1) Questions for you to answer that will help develop your ability to write screenplays.
2) Education on various aspects of screenwriting.
3) Steps of practical application for you to do on your own to further your screenwriting ability.
So, before we get started, I ask you. Why should you write screenplays to begin with, and why shouldn’t give up? The answer to this question is the reason I am writing this series of columns, and it is this: Because there are so many bad films made it makes me ill! I want to see good films, and all of the films I love have great screenplays. They tell terrific stories. The people they tell stories about are highly compelling and draw me in on a personal level. That is what I want to see on the screen. If a studio is going to spend millions of dollars and risk the artistic and financial careers of hundreds of artists, technicians and administrative personnel, it had better be a great script or we are all in serious trouble.
If you want to write a script and think you have the talent, you should do it. If you train hard to do it as well as you can, it is possible you can write a screenplay that will move an audience and get them wanting more.
So, do you have what it takes to do this? Only you know that, and it is possible you don’t even know that yet. The only way you can find out is to do it and see, but I guarantee one thing, if you do not, the world will never know the artistry you have inside yourself.
Here is the first question. Do you want to be a professional screenwriter? What I mean is, do you want to get paid to write screenplays that are made into films that a paying audience watches? This might sound ridiculously simple and obvious, even patronizing. It is not. It amazes me how many people do not have this one major element in their minds when writing.
A professional screenwriter is someone who makes their living writing screenplays. They can write films they sell to other filmmakers, they can write films they make themselves or they can be a ‘gun for hire’ and write for other people. They can also adapt other mediums into film scripts for other filmmakers, studios, or for themselves, like novels or plays, but there is one underlying fact in every case. Screenwriting is their profession. This does not mean you cannot have other professions. Many screenwriters are also directors, producers and actors. They can also be full time novelists or short story writers. Many have other careers not in the entertainment industry. You also do not have to be born into writing or start at an early age, nor do you need to be university educated. History has shown that writers often came from another field or were working in another field while writing.
You might have heard some discouraging remarks from your ‘well meaning’ (or not so well meaning) friends and family. Too old, too young, not educated enough, too educated, came from a poor family, came from a rich family, not American, too ethnic, not ethnic enough, Jewish, not Jewish, poor command of the English language, female, male…did I miss any? If you want you can have any stop thrown at you and give you very good reasons to fail in your career, or worse, not even start. For every ‘reason why’ you can’t do it, there are many examples of people who have. Every year the major studios produce between 200 and 400 feature films. For every film produced hundreds of others were nearly produced and thousands of others were considered. Many of those films were purchased, optioned, or were rewritten in an attempt to make them produceable. And that does not include the hundreds of independent productions that are developed and produced every year. Last year the Sundance Film Festival had over 2,000 completed feature films submitted for competition. Someone is doing a lot of writing!
Here are some examples of successful writers and how they started:
Dashiel Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), Jack London (The Call Of The Wild) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) were all self taught and had no formal education.
Dorothy Parker (A Star Is Born), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist) and Nora Ephron
(When Harry Met Sally) all had formal education in literature.
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man And The Sea) was a reporter, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) wrote musicals and wrote for television, and Neil Simon (The Goodbye Girl) started writing stories and jokes in High school and never stopped.
Screenwriters can have a wide variety of backgrounds as well. Quinten Tarentino (Pulp Fiction) worked at a video store and wrote screenplays in his off time. Ernest Lehman (West Side Story, North by Northwest) planned to be a chemical engineer but discovered literature and decided to become a writer. Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) was raised to be a minister, fell in love with movies, transferred to UCLA film school and completed over a dozen screenplays by the time he was thirty.
Robert Towne (Chinatown) always knew he would be a writer, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) was an extremely prolific actor, director and writer even at a very young age, and William Shakespeare, although occasionally an actor, wrote continually all his life.
Not everyone had a writing career as their initial concept. Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) in his own words: “failed at everything else in life” so he had to turn to writing. John Houston (The African Queen) was the son of famous actor Walter Houston, and did everything but write for years, and Kathryn Bigelow (Near D
ark) was a very talented painter and member of a British avant-garde cultural group.
There are writers who led exciting, adventurous and often odd lives before, during and after their writing careers. Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis) worked for an insurance company and was responsible for writing safety measures for the lumber industry. Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (Battlefield Earth) began life as an adventurer and explorer, traveling some 250,000 miles before he was 19 years old, served in the Navy during World War II, built bridges, navigated uncharted Alaskan seas, and worked on the first governmental nuclear projects. William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) threw away his inheritance to the Burroughs adding machine fortune to live in the seedy street life of New York city where he became a bartender, a drug dealer (to support his own habit), and was, among other things, a cockroach exterminator. And Bram Stoker (Dracula) was a civil servant and then financial manager for an acclaimed acting troupe founded by the great Sir Henry Irving.
Some writers began careers in the entertainment industry. Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator) was executive assistant to Roger Corman, produced James Cameron’s first film, Piranah II and produced The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, among others. David Mamet (Glenn Gary Glen Ross) was briefly an actor and then a major playwright, and Mabel Normand, the Queen of silent comedy, wrote dozens of screenplays while maintaining a career as ‘the female Charlie Chaplin.’
And for those of you who think being a woman is a disadvantage: Jane Campion (the Piano) made short films all through university and has not stopped making films since,
Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) studied acting, worked for a commercial production company as a receptionist and a music video production assistant and wrote her first script in longhand at home and then retyped it on the job. Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) began writing scripts at 14 years old and worked with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and helped launch the career of Douglas Fairbanks. Her career spanned over 70 years and she wrote in nearly every form, including films, plays, books and biographies.
And finally, Frances Marion, who wrote screenplays for some of Mary Pickford’s finest films, ressurected the career of Marie Dressler, was the most valued of Irving Thalberg’s MGM writers and won two Academy Awards (The Big House, 1930 and The Champ (1931), becoming the most renowned female screenwriter of the twentieth century and one of the most respected screenwriters in the history of the cinema.
So, what’s your excuse?
Now, let’s all get on the same page.
Definitions: Screenplay n. : a character driven story told visually
What does that mean? The Character is the driving force behind any screenplay. It dictates the story, the theme, the plot, the antagonist, the heroine, it drives the premise and introduces all the logic that must be adhered to. As it is a screenplay, it must be told visually. There are only two elements in any screenplay scene, ACTION, and CHARACTER DIALOGUE. Action is accomplished by describing what people and other physical universe objects DO, and must be described in a way we can SEE. This does not mean you describe camera directions or editing. Those choices are up to the director, and descriptions of camera movement and other technical terms are very distracting to the reader. Character dialogue is, obviously, what the people in the screenplay say, but what they say needs to communicate something important to the story. It can be conversations that reveal things about the character or story, it can reveal important plot points and also elements of the premise. These are also types of action. The WAY a person speaks can also reveal action. This is sometimes put in the parenthetical below the character’s name, but this technique is frequently over used and can be a crutch for poor dialogue. Ideally all revealing character activities happen in the behavior described in the Action or the lines of the Character Dialogue.
The purpose of a screenplay is TO GET THE READER TO GIVE IT TO SOMEONE WHO WILL PAY MONEY TO HAVE THE FILM MADE. That is your audience. Your audience is NOT a university professor, a six-year-old child or a film critic. It is also not a novelist or a film student. It is initially either a reader or an agent or manager, and then a producer, director or actor. This is your audience. They do not want to read camera directions or hear long ‘interesting’ descriptions of what the film is about. They want to be drawn along on a visual journey, one which takes them into their imagination and allows them to make their own film in their mind as they read your screenplay. Ultimately, your audience is the paying public, but, although they are very important, they are a secondary audience.
The steps to creating a screenplay that you can sell involve three things: being a screenwriter, doing some screenwriting and having a screenplay you can get made into a film.
The steps to planning a screenplay are the opposite. First, you must decide what you want to have, in very specific detail. Then you make plans for the steps you need to take to do that writing, then you will know what you have to be to get those steps done.
The main thing about any film is that it needs to be ABOUT something. It is fine to say you need a low budget script you can shoot in the forest near your grandparents’ house with your three best friends as the actors, but what is it ABOUT? The story. What is happening? This is the most important thing you need to establish. This is the ‘what do you want to have’ question that must be answered first.
So, here are some questions:
1) What do you want to have? Be very specific. Is it a depression era story with a woman protagonist who believes all men should be free and is forced to deal with the hatred of the white people for the blacks? Is it a science fiction Tom Cruise vehicle? Is it a film small enough in scope to allow you to direct it? Every detail. Most importantly, this must include what the story is ABOUT.
2) WHO is it about? This will be covered in more detail in future issues, but it is important to establish this at least on a basic level right from the start. There should be ONE PERSON it is about. There can be many characters, but the film is only about ONE of them. There are very rare exceptions to this, but generally there is only one person the film is really about.
3) Why are you writing this story? What is it about this story that you must tell? If you have only a mild interest in this story chances are you are going to write a mildly interesting screenplay. Ideally, why you are writing this story must be deeply personal and highly important to you as the writer.
Answer those three questions in extreme detail. Along the way you may have ideas about the film, characters, story lines, plot points, etc. No problem. Write them all down and keep them on file. You may have ideas for other films as well. File them too. Just make sure the questions above do get answered.
Good. Now, there is one final exercise for this installment. Get a friend you trust. Tell them what you are doing, that you are starting a screenplay (or reworking an old one) and that you need their help for an assignment. Go to a room with no distractions. Get two chairs and sit facing each other. Then tell them the following statement:
“I am a screenwriter.”
Do this over and over until you feel confident, happy and ready to start writing. This may take a few minutes and it may take longer. There may be things that happen to you while doing this assignment. You may get a sick stomach, want to run away, forget what you are there for, any number of things, but persist. Do it until you feel bright and happy, or, quit and do not write your script, but I think you will.
The world needs good films and good films come from great screenplays. So, START!