WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR HERE?

Jerry MacGuire GifFor those of you who follow screenwriting blogs on a regular basis, you have a pretty good sense of what each blogger brings to the table. On this blog, I don’t do much gossip. I don’t give out names of producers or agents. I don’t have a magic answer for how to make it in the industry. I don’t have a strong enough career to justify the sorts of high-level insights found at Artful Writer or Josh Friedman’s blog.

On the other hand, I do have extensive experience with agents, managers, production executives, producers and working writers. And, I’ve written a lot. All of my scripts, whether they have sold or not, have been championed by strong agents and producers and, on occassion, A-level talent. I do have extensive training in the craft of writing. I do know, more or less, how the industry as a whole functions and how that affects the emerging writer. I do have the experience that comes with regularly submitting scripts and pitches to the mainstream Hollywood motion picture industry. I do have the background of having worked on the producing side of the business, both as a producer and in legal affairs for a studio.

I do love the craft of writing and enjoy its highs and lows: the awful feeling of putting everything I have into a draft and realizing it lies their, flat on the page, no movement, no character, nothing (what the hell was I struggling for?) followed by the incredible high of seeing that awful draft turn into something incredible through deep, hard work. It is the kind of high that is earned and, therefore, lasts. I love the feeling of reading an old script I haven’ looked at in a couple years and saying, “Wow, I did that?”

And, while nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing, I like to write about whatever orts of insight I’ve gleened over the years. In the future, I plan to continue my main focus here, namely posts that assist emerging writers in understanding what is expected of them in the industry and how to deliver it.

With all of that in mind, I throw it out to you. What would you like to see more of on this blog? What would you like to see different? This is your opportunity for feedback.

Don’t be cruel….

Rick Springfield’s Writing One, Too

Rick Springfield
Photo by amy_b @ flickr.com
Former rock star, soap star and teen heartthrob Rick Springfield announces that he has some movie ideas he is developing and that “the next thing is (screen)writing for sure”. Maybe one of his ideas is about a guy who wishes he had his friend’s girlfriend and it leads to all kinds of funny/serious complications, but it all resolves in the end, and he has grown as a person. Or maybe it’s something else completely.

CLICHÉ, ANYONE?

You, (yes, I mean you), think in terms of clichés. You create wholly cliché concepts; you fill your scripts with clichés and you take a huge beating in coverage because of your clichés. Don’t you know? Specs filled with clichés do not sell; cliché pitches do not interest producers; cliché writers do not get assignments or careers.

“Thanks, jerk,” you say, “but how can you help me?”

By admitting that I do it, too. I can’t help it. When I begin writing, everything that falls out of my head is well-trodden drivel. But I get beyond it, as all writers must. This may come as no surprise, but I have a method for doing so which I will share with you.

But, first, what is a cliché? Dictionary.com defines “cliché” as:

A trite or overused expression or idea.

The dictionary loaded into MS Word defines “cliché” as:

A phrase or word that has lost its original effectiveness or power from overuse.

My old yellowed 1988 Random House College Dictionary defines it as:

A trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of form, musical expression, etc.

We could look up “hackneyed” and “trite”, but I think you get the idea. Any element of your story that is so overused that it has lost its effectiveness must go. And here’s why they are in all our writing. Because we study film, watch film, love film. Our heads are filled with what’s already been done. When we go to write about baseball, the first thing that comes into our heads is not baseball, but everything we’ve ever seen in film about baseball. The more we’ve seen it, the quicker it pops into our heads. We are programmed to spit out clichés. (Okay, I’ll admit that a very few of you are wired differently, but it’s one out of a thousand – so don’t count yourself out yet.)

Here’s my program for fighting clichés:

1. I read good literature – lots of it from diverse areas. It broadens my references, takes me out of the same old ways of seeing things.

2. I research my subjects from sources other than fiction. Personal interviews and observation are always the best. Next to that, I read interviews, technical manuals, whatever source material gets me as close to the real subject matter as possible – not close to what’s already been told in stories, but close to the real thing. What I’m searching for is what is real and authentic about the subject, the things I did not expect to find, the things that really move me. “Write what I know” doesn’t mean write only about my own life. It means, get to know my subject for real, not just from what I’ve seen on television. Do my homework.

3. Make notes in life. When I see something real and interesting, jot it down. I build a library of real experiences to draw from. I rarely actually use any of them, but it trains me to view the world in original ways.

4. When I write, I reject the first thought that comes into my head about everything in my story. Nine times out of ten, it is a cliché. I may eventually decide it was the right thought and come back to it, but in the meantime, I try hard to find something more concrete, more authentic, fresher, and more unique.

5. I do constant cliché checks as I move forward. Sometimes, I need to share an idea. Others close to me often spot clichés with ease. Not that they could do better – but it is easier to see someone else’s use of clichés than it is to see your own.

6. I care about this issue a lot. My burning desire to be original and genuinely creative (eventually) carries me beyond the clichés.

Last word. I am not suggesting that anyone write in a vacuum without reference to what has been written or filmed before. On the contrary. I always ask myself, what am I adding to the body of film on this subject. If there is not some profound difference, addition, or new perspective, then I know my work is doomed before I even get started. Why? Because it will be cliché.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

QUESTION

I’m writing a movie musical and am using sort of a jury-rigged version of the standard stage musical format: songs stand on their own as one uninterrupted stream of lyrics. Is there a better way to do this, to include action? A standard way for films? I can’t find online versions of scripts for films with musical numbers in them (except Moulin Rouge, which seemed like a bad scenario, very cutty).
Any advice?
thanks!
Erik from Seattle

I have no experience writing musicals. However, after making a number of inquiries, I have concluded that there is probably no longer a standard format for musicals. I received two important suggestions which may help:

1. Since the thirties, songs in movie musicals have not been uninterrupted events. Rather, the songs themselves advance the action of the story. As such, it is unlikely that the songs will be represented in the script by an uninterrupted block of lyrics. You will likely have action interwoven with the songs.

2. Some of the animated musicals (e.g. Lion King or The Little Mermaid) might be written in an acceptable format. I could not find any of them downloadable on line, but you might check with script companies like Script City to see if you can order a hard copy.

If someone reading this has more experience in this area, help….

CHECKING THE STRUCTURE

---Sleeper---Nick from PA asks:

I’ve just finished rewriting (mostly compressing) my script. It was 135 pages long, now it’s 112.
The acts break down like this:
Act 1 – 32 pages
Act 2 – 62 pages
Act 3 – 18 pages;
Now, obviously, the exposition seems to be too long. Is this slow start a problem?
I tried to shorten it, but just couldn’t. I still need every scene in it. Should I nevertheless cut it down, or I could use such detailed setup and ‘get away’ with it?

Analyzing a story in terms of pure structural paradigms is dangerous business. It’s not that structure is unimportant. On the contrary, structure is critical. The problem is, solid structure arises from many other aspects of the writing. Simply looking at act breaks provides no insight into whether a story works nor does it assist the writer much in improving the story unless other central issues are well understood.

Structure is dictated by the needs of the story. For example, in “The Sixth Sense”, the inciting incident is simply announced; Malcolm tells Cole he is there to help him. Somewhere between Malcolm being shot and Malcolm meeting Cole, something happened to incite him, but we never know what it is. And there is no first act break to speak of, either. Yet, because the story is very focused around its central theme and maintains escalating tensions and stakes, it is structurally sound.

Similarly, in “Casablanca”, we do not even meet Rick until well into the first act. We do not meet or know anything about Ilsa until the second act. We do not know of the connection between Ilsa and Rick until after that. Yet, the story is very structurally sound.

In your story, you need to examine more than just act breaks. What happens in the first 32 pages? What keeps the audience engaged? When do you create a “contract” with the audience, to use Alex Epstein’s terminology? All of these issues and more play into whether a story works. The fact that the first act break is on page 32 means nothing in the abstract.

One clue to whether your story works is in the wording of your question. It suggests you already believe it does not work. You mention a “slow start” and “getting away with it.” I have found two things to be true. First, I will always doubt my work. And, second, most of my doubts are well-founded. The trick is to push the story as far as you can, which is always much further than you think you can (and many more drafts), and then live with its imperfections. Based upon your question, my guess is that you are not there yet.