July 3


THE EXPLODING SCRIBOSPHERE (Classic Post)

(Ed. Note: Entry originally entitled “The Exploding Blogosphere”. Changed to “Scribosphere” courtesy of Craig Mazin. See below.)

BOMBNobody knows nothing. When I started The Thinking Writer about four years ago, I coded each page in HTML and recoded the home page every time I added an article. It was time consuming and it had no ability for reader comments. I had never heard of a blog. A few years later, I discovered blogging software. Poof – the new Thinking Writer was born. When I first put up this blog, I located only one other screenwriting blog, johnaugust.com. If there were more, they were pretty well hidden.

Flash-forward to today and the screenwriting blogosphere is exploding. From A-list writers (like the folks at Artful Writer) to a guy who read a hack book on how to write “Screenplays That Sell” and is about to start his first draft of his first idea (link omitted) to those in between (including me), everyone has something to say about screenwriting. It seems that it’s much easier to “be a screenwriter” on your blog than to actually make a living writing movies.

And everyone is offering advice….

Do these people (including me) know anything? Well, not really. Even at the A-lister level, they can’t agree on much. At least they’ve proven they can write and build a career. But they haven’t proven they can show you how to do it. Then there are those with a modicum of experience (like me) who sound like we know a lot. It’s just a writing trick, really. None of us has any magic answers. Then there are the complete amateurs who’ve never worked in Hollywood, never sold a script, sometimes never even really written a script. Still, they have a lot of advice to give, too. And they are more certain than any of us of the right answers.

So is any of this noise worth anything?

Well…sure it is. Listen to everything and everyone. Stay inside the conversation of screenwriting. Pick up ideas wherever you can. You never know when someone will say something that makes a difference. (I heard something from Craig Mazin just the other day that made a difference for me. He said that he considers the job to be writing movies, not writing screenplays. Nice distinction.)

But here’s the kicker. If you’re not writing, the advice means nothing because none of it translates directly into execution. You can’t tell a damn in the thinking about writing. It’s not like computer programming, where you learn a principle and simply use logic to apply it later. No, writing is like playing piano. You must do it to learn it. In the doing, you find out if the advice held any benefit.

So next time you read some great advice here or on any writing blog, just know, we don’t know. We only think we know. And we only think we know what works for us. The only way for you to know what works for you is to do. Look, learn, then do…and do and do and do….

Got it? Good. Now go write.

July 24


NINETY-NINE % AWFUL (Classic Post)

QUESTION

I was wondering if you could tell us the common errors you saw in the “awful” 99% of scripts you read as an analyst and put them down here?

Might be really useful, as right now I’m suffering from chronic self-doubt and this could help alleviate that (er, or confirm it…)

Dan from The Middle of Nowhere

Sure. First, a note on self-doubt. Many writers suffer from substantial insecurities throughout their careers. It’s part of the package. Don’t let it debilitate you. If you get consistent feedback showing real problems with your writing, just dig in and work through it. It’s all part of the process. Although certain writers have natural abilities that are exceptional, anyone with real discipline, drive and humility can learn the craft well and create a successful professional career.

To answer your question, in a previous column, I mentioned that:

In my years as a reader (a/k/a story analyst), and even today when I’m asked to read scripts from inexperienced writers, 99 out of 100 scripts are awful to the point of being unmarketable….

In that column, I attributed much of this to dialogue, but as I hinted then, bad dialogue is a symptom of larger problems. The pervasive problems I saw and still see are the following, in no particular order:

1. Superficiality. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to explore genuine emotions that have sufficient weight and universality to have any hope of being engaging to a broad audience. Often, these scripts are based either on what the writer believes is an engaging story premise with little attention to deeper issues or is based upon a personal experience about which the writer feels deeply with little effort to express that emotion on the page. In the latter case, the writer is probably too close to the emotions to know whether they are communicated or not. Both of these types of scripts are, in a word, immature.

2. Lack of unity. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to develop the story ideas into a unity of character, theme and story. In a competitive professional script, characters are expressed through actions that do all of the following at the same time: reveal deeper aspects of the character; advance the story in a necessary manner (e.g. without this action, the story would have unfolded very differently), and force the character and/or the audience to explore the theme.

3. Lack of compression. This is closely related to unity. Movies heavily compress experiences so each moment is rich and carries great meaning for the audience. In a marketable script, each moment must carry a great deal of weight – emotionally, thematically and from the standpoint of advancing the story. Inexperienced writers often settle for one or none of these – including moments that do little other than logically move the story forward. Scenes function at a mechanical level only.

4. Technical deficiencies. Inexperienced writers often have yet to master the technical aspects of a screenplay, including illogical scenes that fail to drive one another, confusing or boring action descriptions, incomprehensible story points and errors in spelling, usage, and grammar.

5. Poor Structure. I am not one to believe that there is a perfect story structure. To me, each story suggests its own structure, whether it be in acts, sequences or otherwise. However, a story must have a real and compelling structure. The story line must progress and build in intensity; the pressures on the main character or characters must increase in a meaningful way (not just from a plot standpoint, but thematically as well), there must be a few surprises along the way and the story must resolve in an authentic and engaging manner. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail on this basic level.

6. Clichés. See this.

And, of course…

7. Dialogue. (As per above.)

That’s my top seven (at least, as I think about it now). None of them is an insurmountable problem for an emerging writer and most writers have to work through most of them in the beginning (and always). Don’t get discouraged. Just do the work….

November 1


Screenwriter versus Subway (Classic Post)

New York City Subway
flickr: cieling
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Will Rokos (“Monsters Ball”) was hit by a subway train. He apparently leaned over to peer into the tunnel just as the train barreled out, hitting his head and knocking him onto the tracks. He was conscious at the scene and is hospitalized in critical but stable condition. TW sends well wishes for his speedy recovery.