February 20

FOUNDATIONAL PRACTICES OF SCREENWRITING

Here’s some drivel from the old site. People seem to like it. I think I was a little full of myself….

Many successful screenwriters follow similar core practies to develop and maintain their skills and to create quality screenplays on a consistent basis. The Thinking Writer considers these practies essential and presents them here for you.

I. READ PRODUCED SCREENPLAYS

Read quality scripts, produced and unproduced, on an ongoing basis as part of your regular activity. Do not simply “read over” a screenplay, but read it, think about what works and what doesn’t work, read it again, think again, read it again. Close familiarity with a large, ever growing body of quality screenwriting provides you with a large palette of writing techniques and keeps you in the conversation of professional screenwriting.

II. REWRITE EVERYTHING

Completing the first draft is merely the starting point. In the words of Ernest Hemmingway (as quoted in Robert McKee’s book, “Story”), “the first draft of anything is shit.” Any one at any skill level can generate one-hundred and twenty pages of something. The difference between an amateur and a professional (or professional quality) writer is the ability to rewrite. Be prepared to rewrite everything until it hurts (and if it doesn’t hurt, you are likely not working hard enough.) Proper rewriting is often substantial. A mere polish is rarely enough to bring a first draft to a competitive level. Rather, completing a screenplay usually involves a series of intense rewrites based upon qualified input. (See, below, to know what to rewrite.)

III. BE TOUGH ON YOURSELF

Compare your writing to the best screenplays you have ever read. You cannot afford to set the bar any lower. Excellence in writing is the emerging writer’s singularly most important asset. Within the industry, it is often said that, in order to get noticed, the emerging writer must write twenty-five percent better than experienced writers. It is rarely innate genius that propels writing to a higher level. More often, it is tough scrutiny and hard work.

IV. SEEK QUALIFIED INPUT – (WRITING IS A SOCIAL EXERCISE)

Writing is not performed alone, even if you are the “only” writer on your script. Rather, it is a process of refining your ideas by measuring them against the world, always asking, “Have I expressed my ideas in a way that reaches my intended audience?” In order to answer this question, you must develop a circle of qualified readers, and not just a static pool, but an ever changing pool to provide fresh perspectives. You will ask these readers to read your script and provide candid, no-nonsense feedback. Do not seek input only from sympathetic voices. Rather, seek input from those you know to have a qualified objective perspective on screenwriting and an openness to providing frank comments. The best readers are often those who read screenplays as part of their livelihoods and are accountable for their evaluations (e.g. studio or agency script analysts, development executives, or producers).

LISTEN – A corollary to seeking input is knowing how to listen. Your job as a writer is to be mercenary in seeking input. You are not there to be told how wonderful your writing is. In fact, input like that is generally a waste of your time. Rather, you want to know what works for the reader and, more importantly, what does not. DO NOT try to defend your position to the reader. There is time for that after you receive full input. Rather, listen openly. Prod to find out if the reader fully expressed his or her thoughts, and be open and thankful for the input. It develops the reader for your future use.

BAD NEWS IS GOOD NEWS – A second corollary to seeking input is that bad news is good news. It is your lucky day when a reader tells you something in your script stinks. Every time a reader tells you what doesn’t work for him or her, you have an opportunity to strengthen your work. Any opportunity to make your writing better is an opportunity not to be taken for granted. Your career depends upon it.

INPUT IS JUST INPUT – The third corollary about seeking input is that each reader’s point of view is just a point of view. It is not gospel. Use the input to your advantage, but do not re-write based upon each reader’s specific comments. Seek a body of input from various readers and, from that, make decisions about what is working and what is not working. Problems that come up consistently for all readers are a good place to start. Apply intelligence and judgment to the variety of input you get and make choices from there.

V. FOCUS ON YOUR CRAFT

A polished, easy to read screenplay will ultimately take you much further than a rough draft, even if you need to re-write the script ten more times. If readers have difficulty reading a script for any reason, they will not read it. They are under too much pressure to spend the time on your difficult draft. By paying close attention to the craft of writing, you make each draft clear and easy to follow. That means grammar and spelling count, action must be clear, concise, and easy to follow, and dialogue must be written to professional level. This is usually accomplished simply by paying attention to the craft and putting in the elbow grease to get it done right.

VI. HAVE PATIENCE AND INTENSITY

Drive your career forward as if your life depends upon it, but have patience. (Know where to drive and where to sit back.)

Work zealously on each draft, set aggressive schedules for completing drafts, be prolific.

Never, ever, stop working to improve your writing (at least, not until you are wildly successful). It should always be a challenge and a struggle. That is the only way you will ever be competitive in an industry filled with intelligent, hard-working, writers.

Do not be “over eager”. Do not send out scripts, even to your own readers, that are not ready for input. If you are a beginning writer, take a day or two to sit on everything before you send it out for reads, then look it over again before sending it out. You will be surprised at how poor it suddenly looks and how just a few more hours of work will make is so much easier for the reader to provide good feedback.

Do not get angry when readers, producers, and others in the industry do not read your script quickly. They have their own agendas, pressures, and needs. Remember, with each of these people, you are building a relationship for the long haul. Patient prodding, always allowing them the out of not reading your material at all, is much more productive.

If you no longer need their input on a draft (e.g. you have gotten lots of other input and have decided to move ahead even without their input), nicely pull the draft back and tell them you would like their input on a future draft, instead. The last thing you want is to have someone read a script only to find out that you no longer want their input. That’s the last time you’ll get a read from them.

VII. BE UNSTOPPABLE

Do not let judgments stand in your way, either yours about your own inadequacies or others confirming your worst fears. Writing is a process, not an event. Today’s lousy draft turns into tomorrow’s genius. The difference is in your commitment. It’s fine to feel crappy when you believe your writing is crappy, just do not make the mistake of assuming that means you cannot improve it. “Good writer” and “bad writer” are concepts irrelevant to your success. “Committed writer” is the only concept that matters. Adopting the practices outlined about will insure that you create quality screenplays and greatly enhance your likelihood of success.