March 6


TEXT VS. SUBTEXT, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH… (Classic Post)

If staring at my pages were an Olympic event, I’d win. Right now, I’m thinking about my characters – their very conception. True, for me, the focal point of the script is the story as a whole and how it explores the related questions that interest me (a/k/a the theme). Like Aaron Sorkin, Gary Ross and many others, I organize my scripts around ideas that I hope are important, a set of ideas to bind all the scenes together.

That doesn’t mean I can ignore the characters. A common note every writer receives at some point is, “Your characters need more development,” or “They don’t seem real.” The development exec doesn’t really mean what she says. It’s not her fault; she isn’t a writer. What she means is, your characters must involve the audience. If the audience (which may be the reader in the case of a spec script) is not involved in the characters – the story is not working, pure and simple.

So, aside from organizing the story to explore a set of ideas that matter (and that is no small aside), how do I get the audience involved in my characters. That’s where the text and subtext ideas come in. “Text” is the literal meaning of the words on the page. “Subtext” is what the words really mean. If they are one and the same, the audience is bored.

The central concept I use to draw life into the words – to add subtext to the text (e.g. to make the words mean something other than what they literally say) is this: Continue reading

December 2


REWRITE = FOCUS (Classic Post)

DRAFT GIFIf you cannot rewrite, you are not a writer. The first draft of your script is virtually a practice run. No matter how excited you are to have written 120 pages of something, 120 pages of something is not a script. Your rewrite will always take a tremendous amount of frustrating work and the rewritten script will always be exponentially better than the first draft. If this is not the case – you did not do your job.

At the risk of being branded a “mentor”, I will tell you how to rewrite.

The purpose of a rewrite is to clarify and intensify every aspect of your story. In a professionally written commercial screenplay, each scene advances theme, character and plot. It does not merely advance them; it substantially advances them. Because a screenplay is short, each moment must carry a huge amount of weight – it must be filled with highly concentrated theme, character and plot. With the happening of each scene, the relationships between characters must deepen, the conflicts between them must intensify, and the protagonist’s commitment to his or her goal must become more obsessive. With each moment, the theme must be more severely tested; ignoring it must have greater and greater consequence.

The first draft of your script will not do that. It will sing-song, it will contain scenes that are really cool but unrelated to the theme, the story’s resolution may not even grow out of the theme at all, but just out of the plot. The relationship between the characters will be static or uneven or melodramatic (i.e. rely on stock emotions). In short, it will stink.

This does not mean you are a bad writer – it means you have written a first draft.

Before writing the next draft, you must thoroughly analyze your first draft and identify these weaknesses. How does each scene substantially advance theme, character and plot? What is the theme? (It usually changes from your first ideas about the story.) For each scene, how is the relationship between characters deepened even as the conflict between them is intensified?

You must invest the tremendous work it takes to answer these questions for each and every scene. If you cannot answer them, your story will be hopelessly muddled. It will not have an impact on your audience.

During this analysis you will identify strong scenes and weak scenes; you will learn what your story is really about. You will learn that much of the material has no place in your story – even scenes you thought were your best.

Now, you will create new material to fill in the many gaps, repair the weaknesses. Each bit of new material must adhere to this high standard you have set for yourself – it must fulfill the purposes of substantially advancing the theme, the characters and the plot. Only by fulfilling these purposes in every moment will your story be compelling, driven and satisfying to your audience. A story is tightly wound around a central unified core (theme) and this is the process of winding it.

Now, you will see your story begin to have true movement, not just movement of plot, but real story movement. The rewrite is hard – often harder than the first draft – but it is much more exciting. A properly performed rewrite brings the story to life. When you are done, you will see an exponential improvement in the quality of the story – that is the mark of a real rewrite (as opposed to mere tinkering).

Then, of course, you must clear your head, accept that this draft is not yet nearly at the level required to meet your competition, namely the best writers in the industry, and you must rewrite it yet again. You start by analyzing each and every scene….

August 20


SCREENWRITING NEWS #2 (Classic Post)

TRANSFORMERS GIFHere’s the latest round-up of interesting news around the web:

The Los Angeles Times has a very detailed article about the differences between writing animated features and writing live-action features. Mostly business issues, but these issues impact the creative process, as well.

Then there’s this column (disguised as a rundown of weekly box-office) that has some suprising insights on the value (or lack thereof) of having your movie highly hyped on the blogosphere.

And speaking of online promotion, for once, a studio allowed the screenwriters to make major announcements about an upcoming movie, in this case, the Transformers movie. It is unusual for the writers to play a signifcant role in the promotion on any mainstream studio picture. The more this happens, the better for screenwriters.

Finally, here’s an article on how to get a foot in the door for unproduced screenwriters.