Jeffrey Lieber is a screenwriter (Tangled, Tuck Everlasting) and TV writer-producer (Miami Medical, The Whole Truth, Pan Am, Necessary Roughness). He also received co-writing credit for the pilot episode of “Lost”. I recently spoke with Jeff about his background, his screenwriting and TV writing projects, and the writing craft.
Today in Part 6, Jeff talks more about the craft and keys to success as a writer in Hollywood:
Scott: How about dialogue? How do you go about finding you characters’ voices?
Jeff: First of all, people don’t talk in complete sentences. People don’t. My joke, or one of the rules was, have somebody black out all the character names in your script. If you can’t tell one from the other than you’ve fucked something up. Every character has to have a way of speaking.
I feel like I’m fairly good at dialogue from my days as an actor. Then question is how do you make it different? How do you make them sound different? Aaron Sorkin makes everyone sound the same, but that’s his shtick, and then everyone else is going to write characters who sound different from each other.
Dialogue, to me, is the least, not the least important element, but the last element. It’s once you solve structure and story, then you can spend your time working on dialogue.
Scott: How about theme? This is a subject that I get the widest variety of responses on. How important is theme? Do you start with a central theme? Does it arise over the course of writing something?
Jeff: I think it all depends on you as a writer. I know Liz Krueger, who’s one of the creators of “Necessary Roughness,” theme is incredibly important to her. To her it’s the touchstone that allows her to know whether any story belongs in the script. I tend to go from a story point of view, and then try to find the theme as I go. I tend to go to the, “What happens next,” school of storytelling. Sometimes seen as incredibly important and sometimes seen as irrelevant.
You have stories that you tell. You tell them in the fashion of this goes into that, goes into that, and then sometime at the end, you go, “Oh. This is all because of x, y or z.” I think, you should probably have that, but it’s not what’s required to tell a story.
The story only has a really interesting beginning, a compelling middle and a surprising end. Maybe, that has a theme, maybe it doesn’t. I feel it depends on the writer. To me, it lies sort of pocket below story, but for some people it’s the first thing they work off of.
Scott: What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have goals in mind and, if so, what are they?
Jeff: I have to know what the scene is there for. Is it there to move a plot piece forward? Is there to reveal a character trait? That’s one of the things I learned later in writing is how to be as surprising as possible. If the end of the scene is obvious from the beginning of the scene, there’s no point to having the scene. If the beginning of the scene is we’re going to dig for treasure, at the end of the scene you find the treasure, you don’t have much of a scene.
If the beginning of the scene is you are going to dig for treasure, and someone breaks their leg and you discover that someone else is working for another team, that’s a scene. At seven scenes later while you’re chasing that person who is working for the other team around, you stumble across the treasure then you can structure this well.
In the third episode of the first season of “Breaking Bad,” there is a set of scenes around Walt having this guy in the basement where he’s trying to figure out whether or not he needs to kill the guy or he can let him go. It is so incredibly well plotted with so many surprises and so specific.
It is a very straight, simple story which is, do I have to kill this man or can I trust him? The way in which it plays out and the pieces that are used to tell the story are so intricately plotted out that it’s a piece of brilliance.
Scott: What’s your single best excuse not to write?
Jeff: [laughs] My single best excuse not to… Christian Reed, who [indecipherable] said at one point, “Writing isn’t shoveling rocks or breaking rocks.” Which is to say that it’s something you have to find some level of inspiration to do. You can’t just go out there and do it. So there’s times…One of the hardest things that I had to learn as a writer was to be able to forgive myself for the fact that it just isn’t going to happen today, and to accept that as opposed to sitting in it all day long and forcing myself. I’m a write‑every‑day kind of guy, but there’s some times where I just look at myself and say, “You know what? It isn’t going to happen today. I’m going to forgive myself that and do something else.”
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Jeff: I love the fact that a year and a half after I’ve written something, I will read it and not recognize the fact that I wrote it. This is, particularly, in some of the blog work I do. When you and I first got in contact, and I noticed that you had linked to my principal blogs that I had written back years ago, I read a couple of them and it was as if I was reading something that someone else had written. I was quite happy that I liked it, but it was an amazing experience of not remembering the inspiration, not remembering the activity of writing, not remembering the act of editing, nothing.
It was just this piece of writing that somebody had written, then now I found quite inspiring. That piece of magic is my favorite part of writing.
Scott: What is it about that? Is it a feeling of almost magic or there was this other part of you that was involved in the creative process…
Jeff: I honestly don’t know what that is. It’s other worldly and weird. It’s really weird to read something that you know you wrote, but you don’t have any sense or memory of having written…Somebody much more famous than me, said, at one point, “Writing is painful. To have written is glorious.” That I find true. Writing is painful. It’s hard work. It requires a great amount of discipline, and disappointment and everything else. But to have written is glorious and to experience your writing as if it had come from somebody else is magical.
Scott: One last question: What advice can you offer to an aspiring screen writer or TV writer about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?
Jeff: I would say people like things you love, don’t chase the industry ever. If vampires get so hot and you write a vampire script, there’s someone bigger and more important than you that’s already on that project. Don’t chase it. To some level, you have to put your skin in the game, and come out here, and get a job close enough to somebody who you can impress with your calm, and your givingness, and your energy and all these sort of things. I think the stereotype of the terrified industry insider who is afraid of other people getting their job, that doesn’t exist. That person exists, but it’s not, at least in my experience, what most people are. I think most people are people that once they get to the other side of the fence, and have been let in and allowed to do this thing, if they feel any level of security, what they do is spend a little bit of time trying to find somebody else who they can help along the way.
I remember, very specifically, the first two years out here which were awful and terrifying. I needed somebody to take a shot on me. That person was Robin Lessinger and Adam Goodman over at DreamWorks. What they needed from me was somebody who had the passion and the talent, or some version of the talent, and what I needed from them was a chance. Getting a chance is hard, but the best thing you can do is to keep writing and, then at some point, to decide you’re going to come and be part of the system.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, go here.
Part 3, go here.
Part 4, go here.
Part 5, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Jeff and ask any questions you may have.
Jeff is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.