If you don’t know who Charlie Kauffman is, you’ve been writing in a hole or you’re just plain solipsistic. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and finally won this time. The picture, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. Not a great commercial success, nor was Adaptation, nor Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, nor even his most popular, Being John Malkovich. Yet, he is the darling of Hollywood, the writer’s writer. The question is, why?

To me, the answer is easy. He’s brilliant. I hate to use a bad word here, but I can’t help it. He’s postmodern. Kaufman understands the conventions of screenwriting backwards and forwards and never fails to twist them on their heads. Sometimes it works, as in Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (I love the way he blends reality and fiction so there is no clean boundary) and sometimes it doesn’t, as in the third act of Adaptation (blaahhhh – a conceit that doomed itself). Always, though, it teases and entertains those who understand story structure and the rules of a screenplay. Does it reach the average Joe in Nebraska? Don’t know, don’t care. Every screenplay is not for every audience member always. In fact, no screenplay is.

There’s a point to this somewhere. Since I get on my sort of soapbox with almost every post, this one will be no different. The point is, it takes courage to do what he does to a story – maybe less courage now that he’s on picture number five and has an Oscar – but somewhere along the line it took a great deal of courage. I look at my own work and ask whether, when it finally gets through development (if ever), it will add anything important to the body of filmmaking as a whole? I’m too chicken to answer honestly – but I can tell you, it’s the drive that keeps me going. It’s a long haul, brother, but man, is it worth it….


The Oscars tonight reminded me that I haven’t reposted my summary of Gary Ross’s excellent lecture for AMPAS on screenwriting. I had this on the old website, but the webhost lost all the data, so I’m recreating it from memory.

The Oscars tonight reminded me that I haven’t reposted my summary of Gary Ross’s excellent lecture for AMPAS on screenwriting. I had this on the old website, but the webhost lost all the data, so I’m recreating it from memory.

Gary Ross
has screenwriting in his genes. Son of Arthur A. Ross. (“Creature From The Black Lagoon” and “Brubaker”) and writer of “Big”, “Dave”, “Pleasantville” and “Seabuscuit”, Ross has the unique distinction of having almost every script he has ever written made into a movie. He admits to one unproduced screenplay. Continue reading “GARY ROSS AND THE MARVIN BOROWSKI LECTURE ON SCREENWRITING”


I get asked this a lot and I’m tired of answering it; I have pages to write. So here it is, hopefully for the last time. Some newbie writers worry about their ideas or entire scripts being stolen. In fact, all of us worry about our ideas being stolen to some degree. Here’s my take on the best way to avoid that, both as a writer who, of necessity, circulates a lot of ideas in the community and as an entertainment attorney. This is not legal advice – just thoughts on a weblog.

1. Similar ideas always exist and always come from multiple sources. If your so-called idea is just a vague general concept, there’s not much that can or, in my opinion, should be done to protect it. If you believe in your idea, flesh it out, write something down, maybe even put in the real work it takes to write the script.

2. Written ideas can be copyrighted. Copyright your screenplays and, if written down in sufficient detail, your ideas, too. Do not bother to send them into the WGA script vault or any of the others around town. It is just as easy to fill out a proper copyright form and send it to the Copyright Office. A real copyright sometimes gives you additional legal rights. The link you just passed takes you to a page where you can get the right form and simple directions to register your copyright.

3. Keep a written record of who you share your ideas with. If you talk to someone about your idea, put it down on your log, including the date, time, and substance of what you shared.

4. If you are not represented by an agent or manager or if you present ideas on your own even as a represented writer, write a confirming letter immediately following your presentation of the idea – just a short note that confirms in a nice way that you presented such and such an idea and appreciate it being considered. If you are represented by an agent or manager, talk to him or her about the best way to confirm an idea presentation. The agent or manager may prefer to do the follow up.

Finally, expect similar ideas to surface and, often, beat your idea out. It’s part of doing business. If you are really worried, write a good script. Those are much harder to steal.


It’s late. I’m at the keyboard re-reading the damn pages, again, and thinking about theme, again. The questions I always face from beginning to end are “Why write this script?”, “Is it exploring questions worth exploring?” and most importantly, “Does each and every scene really further the exploration of the theme?” As if that’s not enough, I also worry about whether the story is entertaining while making this serious exploration, whether the characters are interesting enough, and whether anyone else will be interested in the questions the story asks.

After years of working on creatiing interesting characters, I’ve finally decided I don’t give a damn. When a development exec says, “You need character development,” he or she really means, “The story is just not that interesting.”

Somewhere on the old website, I posted some pretty good articles on the psychology of character. I put a lot of serious thought into how to conceive characters that are built on internal conflict from the ground up. I’ll post these articles again one day, but what I’ve come to realize is that the psychology of a character doesn’t matter at all if what the character is up to doesn’t matter. Is my character facing a struggle that asks a question that I think is important? If not, I’m wasting my time.

So how the hell do I know whether my theme is good enough? The only answer I’ve ever come up with is that if it reaches me, if I look at what really matters to me, if I get it on the page through dramatic action without ever preaching it, then it’s worth writing. Not only can’t I tell what will be important to a particular exec, I can’t write it if it means nothing to me. It’s too hard. I don’t want to be vacuous. Contrary to popular belief, execs are not stupid. They know when you don’t care; it shows up on the page.

There’s a lot to say about theme and I’ll get around to saying it. Just not tonight. I need to read the damn pages again.


While we’re rebuilding the site, thought I’d mention this. If you live in L.A. and haven’t signed up for WGA Foundation mailing list, you should. Here’s the link:

Here’s the latest event in the words of the WGA:

“Writers on Writing” with James L. White (“Ray”)

When: Wednesday, March 23rd at 7:30 pm

Where: Writers Guild of America, west; 7000 West Third Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048

Who: James L. White, who wrote the highly acclaimed biopic, “Ray”, which is nominated for six Academy AwardsTM. White received the 2005 Golden Satellite Award for Best Original Screenplay, and is also nominated for a BAFTA Award from the British Motion Picture Academy. Prior to “Ray”, White had penned several projects still in various stages of development. This includes “Red Monkey” for Sidney Poitier and Columbia Pictures, “The Bo Jackson Story” for Fox Television and producer John Davis and “The Harlem Six” for MGM. He has also written an episode of the series “American Dreamer” for HBO and Danny Glover. The program will include an audience Q & A.

F.X. Feeney, film critic and essayist, serves as moderator.

What: This is a monthly series presented by the Writers Guild Foundation where writers talk to moderator F.X. Feeney about recent work, the development of their careers, their approach to their craft, artistic challenges they’ve faced and tactics for survival in a challenging industry.

TICKETS: Tickets can be purchased on-line at or by calling 323.782.4692
Admission prices: General public-$20, WGA members and academic faculty-$15, full-time students with I.D.-$10.
Special discounts available for Foundation donors.


The Complete Guide To Standard Script Formats: The Screenplay

by Cole/Haag, CMC Publishing

Cole and Haag set the standard for script formatting decades ago and their legacy lives on. The Thinking Writer thinks the forward to this book alone is worth the price. Understanding the basic ideology of script formatting has significant impact on narrative, from understanding how pages translate into screen time to learning how to write down the page instead of across. Cole and Haag also save the committed writer from the falacy of word-processor formatted scripts. Automatic formatting is a great time saver, but understanding formatting is critical to taking intelligent control of your narrative. What formatting options are available that your computer does not automatically throw out? Many, and they are carefully covered in this essential reference work.


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.

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Writing Dialogue
by Tom Chiarella, Story Press

The book is perfect for both novice writers and more experienced writers who have simply never specifically studied dialogue. It is a wonderfully clear treatise that will provide the committed screenwriter with many new tools for crafting effective, engaging dialogue. Tom Chiarella breaks down dialogue into a number of basic concepts essential to crafting effective speech. These elemental concepts are well explained, with clear examples throughout. Although the work is written for fiction writers generally, and not speciifcally attuned to screenwriters, it is worth studying and keeping on your shelf.

Writing Dialogue for Scripts
by Rib Davis

Although not as clear as Tom Chiarella’s book, this book is also worth reading and keeping on the shelf. Davis surveys many of the pitfalls of bad dialogue (including what Davis calls “Ping-Pong” dialogue, which is one of the most common dialogue killers) and also discusses the driving forces behind dialogue. The reader will quickly see how the form of dialogue can and must be coupled with the deeper purpose of the dialogue and the underlying “agenda” of each character . Through clear examples, the reader can easily grasp the basic concepts that elevate dialogue from purely expositional to dramatic.