Chris McCoy is pretty unique among screenwriters in that he has three scripts that have made the Black List: “Get Back” (2007), “Good Looking” (2009), and “Good Kids” (2011). That alone is enough to warrant significant curiosity about this young writer. The fact his screenplays are highly entertaining, distinctive, and filled with quirky characters and strong dialogue makes it even more so. Therefore I was quite happy when Chris agreed to do a GITS Q&A.
In this 5-part series, which will run today through Friday, we cover Chris’ background as a writer, reflections about each of his Black List scripts, and his insight into the craft of screenwriting.
Today: Part 5 — The Craft of Screenwriting
A few craft questions. Are you one of those writers who works out your story before you start writing it or do you prefer to type FADE in and see where that takes you? If you do spend a lot of time in prep, could you describe how you approach that process?
If I’m writing a spec, my outline is looser than it would be if I was writing an assignment. Because you have to pitch to get studio jobs, it means that you’ve extensively worked out the beats of what you’re going to do, so you’ve got this long, in-depth document to use as a reference.
But if I’m just at home fiddling around with an idea, I like giving myself some room to explore. What I typically do is have an outline with the big plot points – the inciting event, where we’ll be at the end of the first act, some of the second act rising action beats, the impossible situation at the end of the second act and what the climax will look like.
And then I try to find the most creative path between those big moments. My feeling is that if I can surprise myself when I’m connecting these dots, then hopefully I’ll surprise the reader. If I’m just putting words on the page, I’ll always have a couple of weird ideas that pop into my head that I probably wouldn’t have gotten had I just been putting index cards up on a wall.
You write such interesting, unique characters. What are the key aspects of your character development process (e.g., questionnaires, biographies, interviews, monologues)?
If I’m creating a character from scratch, I’ll usually start by thinking about people I know, or I’ll use some version of myself, mining my own fears and neuroses and building outwards from there. I’ve never really been somebody who writes with an actor in mind, because my feeling is it’s better to create someone on the page who an actor can inhabit. Plus, chances are you’re not going to get the actor you want anyway.
Before I start writing, I create character profiles that I’ll refer back to throughout the process, describing what the character wants, what the character does for a living, what he or she looks like, and so forth.
After I construct these basic bones, I’ll start fleshing them out with more unique personality traits, which can come from anywhere – something you noticed in somebody on the street, something you read about in a magazine. I collect books of anecdotes and miscellanea, which always seem to give me a lot of character ideas. I also live in Venice Beach, which is essentially an open-air lunatic asylum, so there’s no shortage of interesting people around.
Once I’ve come up with a rough sketch of the characters, I’ll write out what their relationships are to each other, and how they’ll complicate each other’s lives. Once I have those dynamics figured out, I’ll start writing, and that’s when the character will invariably offer up more information who they are.
While most of the humor in your stories arises from situations, you also write entertaining and funny dialogue. Is that just an innate talent or have you had to work on this area of the craft? If the latter, what tips do you have about how to develop one’s ability to write good dialogue?
I think that good dialogue comes from character development – the better you know your character, the more specific the dialogue is going to feel.
How do you go about the process of plotting a story? Are there any specific structural paradigms or theories you rely on when you write?
The theory I always end up coming back to is Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing Fiction, which I’ve had up on my wall in front of my computer for years.
The idea I mentioned earlier about writing to please just one person is in those rules, as are other gems: “Start as close to the end as possible…” “Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of…” And so forth. They’re really useful.
What’s your take on the idea of “theme”? How important are story themes to you when developing and writing a script?
A story theme is tremendously important, because it’s what you’re trying to say with the work as a whole. If there’s no theme, there’s nothing holding the script together.
What do you like about screenwriting?
I love that there is a technical aspect to it – you have to learn structure and how to set up reversals and how to build towards this hopeless moment at the end of the second act where you have no idea how the protagonist is going to get out of the mess he finds himself in. But once you understand structure, you can start playing with it. It’s a little bit like being a tradesman – if you’re a blacksmith, you have to learn how to build a blade before you can get creative with the hilt. (Obviously, I’m using this reference because I’ve been in a Game of Thrones hole recently).
I love writing dialogue. I love figuring out how the puzzle of a story goes together. I feel grateful that I get to tell stories for a living, and I hope that I have the chance to keep doing it.
What do you hate about screenwriting?
I hate that once you hand your work over to a producer or a studio, your fate is in their hands.
I hate that my parents have no idea what to tell their friends I do for a living at cocktail parties.
More than anything, I hate when Final Draft does that thing where it screws up dialogue being carried over from one page to the next, and then the lines suddenly disappear, and I have to minimize the window to get them to come back.
One last question: What is the single best piece of advice you can give to aspiring screenwriters?
I’d just say it’s important to actually finish your scripts, instead of perpetually tinkering with them. It’s hard to consider something done and show it to people, but the thing about being a screenwriter is that it’s never done. Whatever you’re working on, you’ll have to do fifty more drafts. But you can’t move forward with your career if nobody ever sees what you’re writing. It’s a long road, so you need to keep writing and getting material out there. You never know what’s going to pop.
Those eight rules for writing from Vonnegut? Here they are:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Now everyone head to comments and thank Chris for taking the time for this interview. While you’re there, wish him the best of luck. It’s creative juju for him… and good karma for you!
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2 here.
Part 3 here.
Part 4 here.