Reader Question: How to balance screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

August 27th, 2015 by

From Traci Peterson:

I’m an intuitive/organic writer discovering the sometimes overwhelming scope of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung’s influences on character and story.

Any suggestions on how to balance the two in order to get the first script down?

It can be overwhelming, especially on the front end of the process where a writer studies various theories, paradigms, and approaches to the craft. This is a necessary thing, at least for most writers, but how to make sense of all that information and intellectual stimuli? And then more to your point, how to balance all of those ideas with the actual practice of writing a story?

First off, I need to lay out my standard line: “There is no right way to write.” Every writer is different. Every story is different. Blake Snyder may work for Writer A, but not at all for Writer B, whereas Robert McKee may work for Writer C, but seem like a foreign language for Writer D.

Whenever you hear talk about a “writer’s voice,” this is part of that process. You learn what you learn, sort it out, pull together what works for you, and that becomes a key part of your voice.

With that frame, let me offer two words of advice on the matter. The first is a macro take, what we may call “A Writer’s Odyssey.” The second is a micro perspective, what we may call “Write Here, Write Now.”

A WRITER’S ODYSSEY

The very first moment we open a book, read an article or take a class about screenwriting, we begin an odyssey, our own Hero’s Journey. Along the way, we may experience something like the stages below:

Some things we learn, stick. Others, don’t. Some things we learn, help. Others, hurt. We cross thresholds, we get knocked back. We feel high, we feel low. Things make sense, things confuse the hell out of us. But all along, we are learning how to think about the craft.

Along the way, we are also writing. Much of what we write doesn’t work. Some of it may downright suck. But the more we learn and process what we learn, the more we write and process what we write, we advance along in our odyssey, hopefully getting better as screenwriters.

Now I don’t believe this odyssey ever ends, we are always on the road to discovery. However whenever we write a script, I like to think of myself as having gone around the circle and wound my way back home. It’s important to claim that, to assert to yourself, “I’ve learned what I’ve learned, know what I know, I feel passion for this story, and I’m going to write the hell out of it.” You are home now. Don’t worry about what you’ve learned in the past or what you will learn in the future, just be here now as a writer in direct contact with your story in the present.

[By the way, after we finish a script, we go back out on the odyssey, learning more stuff until we come back home to write the next one.]

WRITE HERE, WRITE NOW

All that stuff you’ve learned, all the theories, paradigms and approaches, you can use them in prep-writing as you wrangle your story. But along the way of prepping your story, you increasingly need to trust your gut. Great stories require all aspects of the writing psyche, but perhaps nothing as important than your instincts. Ideally as you work your way through story prep, your gut will be taking over the decision-making process.

Once you type FADE IN, it’s time to take all that theory, all those approaches, all those paradigms, and set them over there. Clear them out of your consciousness.

Be. Here. Now. Just you. Your story universe. Your characters.

Engage all that narrative material directly, then —

Write here. Write now.

Naturally your theories, paradigms and approaches will creep into your mind. Don’t freak out. They’re trying to help you, they’re your friends and they’re useful in their own way. Just very nicely tell them, “Hey, theories. Thanks for dropping by. But you know what? I’m gonna go with my gut right now. You remember, we’ve talked about this. You were there to help me during prep. You’ll be there to help me after I get done with this draft. But right now, I’ve got to write now. So why don’t you and approaches and paradigms go off and play a few rounds of miniature golf or something. I’ll catch up with you in a month or two. Ciao!”

When you are page-writing, that’s all you’re doing. Engaging your creativity with the story universe and those characters, a direct experience of each scene in the here-and-now.

Dare I say it? You go… into… the… story… and write what emerges.

Now when I say to tell your theories and what-not, you’ll be calling on them in the assessment part of the rewrite stage, I mean that. You will want to apply that stuff in helping you pull the story together. Use them in prep, use them in analyzing your drafts and figuring out what to do in rewrites. But when you are page-writing, go with your gut. And write here, write now.

How about it, GITS readers? What Traci asks is a hugely important question. How do you find the balance between screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

[Originally posted April 18, 2012]

UPDATE: Subsequent to this entry, I did another post with relevance to the subject: “Don’t think… feel.” Here is that post:

“I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads ‘Don’t think!’ You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.” — Ray Bradbury

I stumbled across this quote recently and it struck me as profoundly right.

I do a lot of thinking about the craft of screenwriting. I come by it honestly. I never went to film school or had any formal training before I broke into the business, so I had to do whatever I could to get my act together to sustain a career as a screenwriter. Moreover I had trained to become an academic, albeit in a completely different field, before I took my “year off from school” which subsequently became the rest of my life.

Put those two together and the result is applying a significant amount of my gray matter to reading, studying, analyzing, questions, concerns, ideas and concepts related to writing screenplays.

When I began teaching screenwriting in my spare time about a decade ago, that only intensified my thought process. Writing is one thing. Teaching writing is quite another. The former is pretty much just ‘doing.’ The latter requires one to… well… think about the doing, then articulate that process in a coherent form which can be conveyed to students.

In the ten years or so I’ve been teaching, I have created dozens of classes and taught well over one hundred of them to over a thousand writers. All of that required considerable thinking.

And yet while I’m proud of the approach I have developed which I teach — grounded in solid theory and years of experience working as a professional in Hollywood, not formula, not pap, a comprehensive, character-based approach to the craft — when I send writers off to write their scripts or accompany them in workshops, I always make a point similar to Bradbury: No matter the books you’ve read or theories you’ve ingested, no matter what you’ve come up with in your prep work, whatever your thinking has brought you to, you must be willing to trust your characters, follow your feelings as you write. Because writing is a journey of discovery no matter how much thought you’ve put into it.

Now I would hasten to add a proviso: Bradbury was a genius. He was destined to be a writer, perhaps even born with a writer’s soul. So it was probably natural and easy for him to ‘cut off’ his intellect and trust his gut when writing. Those of us who exist on a more terrestrial plane may not be so lucky and will have to rely at least somewhat on our intellect as we write.

But it’s that last point that really grabbed me: Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

Wow. I love that. Because it describes in succinct fashion the very process I try to convey here on the blog, in my teaching and in my own writing.

Learn the craft as best you can through study and analysis. Immerse yourself in your story universe during prep-writing. Brainstorm. Character development. Plotting. All of it. That should engage both your intellect and your heart.

But when you hit FADE IN, default to your emotions. At the end of the day, you want a script reader to feel something. What better way to ensure that than by feeling something ourselves?

Look, as I say ad nauseum, there is no right way to write. But consider the potential of Bradbury’s imperative when you launch into writing page: Don’t think! Feel. If you’ve done sufficient prep work, the intellect with be there as a sort of ‘subtext’ to your feelings.

And that combination could be the ideal one for your creative process.

Every writer has to figure out for him or herself, the balance between theory and writing. However while not diminishing the importance of screenwriting theory, at the end of the day generating authentic human emotion in a reader is going to go a lot further in selling your script than writing principles and practices.

Reader Question: “What about screenplay page count?”

August 18th, 2015 by

A reader question from jmay:

We’ve all heard a page a minute as long as we’ve been writing. We’ve also heard Courier New is the correct font, but there’s this thing called Courier Final Draft. The two can result in a 20 page difference in a full length screenplay! So what’s the actual industry standard these days and the closest to “page a minute?”

Two questions here: (1) What’s the deal with page count nowadays? (2) Can screenwriters get away with cheating our page count?

Re the first question: I touched on a related bit of business in this recent post.

In years past, I used to teach that the average scene was 2 pages long. Since a typical script clocked in at 120 pages, then you could basically expect to see around 60 scenes in a script.

However, I think that has changed. I don’t have statistics to bear this out, but it just feels to me like scenes are getting shorter – and as a result, there are more of them in contemporary movies. Perhaps between 75-90 scenes per script.

Today when I write, instead of keeping in mind a 2-page per average scene, I’m thinking 1-and-a-half pages per scene.

[Those numbers will vary according to the genre of the script, the style the writer chooses to take in telling the story, and other factors.]

This is all part of a trend starting in the late 90s, where movies are getting shorter. Here’s a USA Today article from 2002 that tracked the trend even then:

Films have been getting shorter since 1997, when the average movie was 109 minutes long. This year, the average is 103, according to box office firm Nielsen EDI.

As the poster child of short movies, the article cites Men in Black II which clocked in at a mere 82 minutes.

Ironically, of course, we’ve got all these big budget movies like The Dark Knight and Transformers: Rise of the Fallen which fill out 150 minutes.

So what the hell is going on?

My guess is that page count is now more genre and format dependent than ever. For example, animation is super-expensive to produce. Therefore, it behooves the filmmakers to make shorter movies. Here are some run times of recent animated films:

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — 94 minutes
Up — 96 minutes

There’s a similar thing re family movies. They’re shorter because:

(A) The thinking is that kids have shorter attention spans.
(B) Therefore the studios can get away with shorter (read: less expensive) movies.

Aliens in the Attic — 86 minutes
G-Force — 88 minutes
Shorts — 89 minutes

Then there are your basic comedies. Aimed at teens and adults, their run times tend to be just a bit longer.

The Hangover — 100 minutes
Land of the Lost — 101 minutes
The Proposal — 108 minutes

Sci-fi and fantasy can run even longer, primarily because they have more story to cover.

Terminator Salvation — 115 minutes
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — 118 minutes
Star Trek — 127 minutes

Same as ‘smart’ movies. You know, ones with actual plots? Aimed at ‘adults’ (anyone over 35).

The Soloist — 117 minutes
The Taking of Pelham 123 — 121 minutes
Duplicity — 125 minutes

Then there are the huge spectacle / event movies. They can run really long. Why? Because being the 800 pound gorillas they are with their $100-200M budgets, they do it because they can. Plus, the studios believe that these viewers want a bigger bang for their buck.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — 153 minutes
And the aforementioned Transformers 2 (150 minutes).

My take on this re screenwriting:

(1) You should be cognizant of the genre. If it’s a comedy, action, or family movie, aim for 90-100 pages. If it’s a drama, thriller, or a movie aimed at adults, aim for 100-110 pages.

(2) A 120 page script nowadays is probably perceived as being a ‘longish’ script.

(3) Even though some movies may run in the 80-90 minute range, I would be hesitant to write a script less than 90 pages long. I don’t care what genre it is, if I read a script that’s 90 pages or less, I immediately think — “The story must be thin.” It’s easier to cut material than be forced to generate more to ‘pad’ the story later.

But the bottom line is this: Let the story dictate the page count. If it needs 120 pages to be told well and you’re convinced you’ve cut it to the bone, let it be 120 pages. Don’t obsess over page count. Obsess over story and characters.

Re cheating page count, wow, things have changed. I remember an old screenwriter telling me that back in the (analog) day, he’d squeeze more into his scripts by repeating page numbers. [On his manual typewriter!] In fact, there were certain numbers he felt were ‘safe’ to repeat. I don’t remember all of them, but P. 73 was one.

Then came computers and screenwriting software. And there are all sorts of cheats. Different font size. Text line spacing. Blank line spacing. Margins. How many lines allowed per page. Where, as jmay suggests, you can change the page count by 20 pages.

Look. I know this area really well. As I’m always trying to save lines because I write long, then trim and trim and trim.

I confess I have used cheats before. But you pay a price.

First, you put a lot more black ink on the page and that has a psychological affect on a reader. They like to see white space because it means they have less to read. When they see page after page crammed with text, it gives them an immediate headache.

Second, you’re not giving yourself an accurate read per your plot points, your script may say that the end of Act Two happens on P. 90, but if you’ve squeezed the margins, font size, etc, what if your page count is actually P. 98? Or P. 100? If I knew that plot point happened on P. 100, my impulse would be to look for trims, tighten up the script. But with cheats, I may feel satisfied with what I’ve written.

So while a screenwriter can get away with cheating page count, I don’t advise it.

Trust me on this: You can always trim. Always.
And 99% of the time that benefits a script, making it a cleaner, leaner, tighter read.

REQUEST TO SCRIPT READERS: I know we have some who read this blog. What’s your advice about page count? Does a script vary in length per its genre?

[Originally posted August 23, 2009]

Reader Question: During rewrites, how can I tell if something is lacking in my story?

August 11th, 2015 by

Reader question via Twitter from @SupportTheCos:


Cosmo, by lacking, I take it you mean this: Is something missing from my story? Is it not all it could be? Is there something more I could do with the story, but I’m just not seeing it?

Good questions. I’ll oftentimes have that concern when assessing a scene I have written. And experience tells me if that question arises in my mind, it’s probably right: There is more I can do with it. Or on a macro level, is there a hole in the plot I’m missing?

Of course, we can be blind to any of that. As you suggest, Cosmo, when we work on a story for a long time, we can get so close to it, we don’t have the kind of objectivity to make an informed judgment.

So my first piece of advice is a simple one: Once you finish your draft, set aside your story for at least 2 weeks. You need that time and distance away from the story to generate a set of ‘fresh’ eyes.

Indeed, why not use that time to research another story. Brainstorm. Character development. Plotting. This can serve as a kind of sorbet to cleanse the mental palate and create even more space between you and the first story.

After your break, sit down and read your script all the way through, start to finish. Have part of your mind attuned to this very question: Is something lacking? That clean read should give you a good indication if the story is close to being fully realized or not.

One particular area to focus on is theme. When I read another writer’s script and come away with a sense of it lacking depth or emotional resonance, it almost always revolves around themes. Either the writer didn’t zero in on a central theme and the story lacks a sense of coherent meaning or they didn’t explore sub-themes which are there in potential, just not realized.

How to explore themes? Dig into your characters. The central theme is often tethered to the Protagonist and their psychological journey. Sub-themes can emerge from the subplot relationships of other characters to the Protagonist.

Perhaps the single best way to determine if your story is lacking that special something is to have others read it. If you have a writers group, start there. Consider using some pro readers like those who provide script coverage at the Black List. They are affordable and a good way to get a sense of where your story stands.

But circling back, if you are asking yourself that question — Does my story lack something — that’s likely a good indication it is. Of course, that means more work rewriting, however the fact you even asked that question is a sign of your maturity as a writer, instead of just accepting the draft as is.

How about you, GITS readers? Any suggestions for Cosmo? If so, please head to comments with your thoughts and ideas.

To read over 300 reader questions and my responses, go here.

Reader Question: What do I do if I’m less interested in my Protagonist than other characters?

August 6th, 2015 by

This is actually a question that arose in the current prep workshop I am leading. My response:

It’s kind of ironic that in many movies, the Protagonist is not necessarily the most interesting character. Per your references, Lecter is more interesting to most folks I would guess than Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. Sam Gamgee over Frodo and certainly Gollum over them both. But that does not necessarily translate into them functioning as the story’s Protagonist. They can, of course, but not required.

You concern points to several significant issues. As it’s late at night, let me hit on one of them. We can return to the subject if you remind me tomorrow.

What do I do if I’m more interested in another character as compared to my Protagonist?

This is not easily answered. For example, it is critical if our story has a Nemesis character in the classic sense of the word that we make them a worthy foe. More often than not, that means making them multidimensional, fascinating characters. In that process, we can find ourselves much more intrigued by them than our Protagonist. That goes with other characters as well… Mentor, Trickster, Attractor.

I remember going up for the project Jonny Quest, a rewrite of an existing script. The script was really well written. One problem: It was clear the writer had a much greater affinity for Race Bannon than Jonny. That’s a problem when the project is called… you know… JONNY QUEST!

So what do in that situation? Acknowledge you have done a good job in digging into the non-P character. Good for you! Now do the same to your P. You have to find what is compelling about the P. It’s up to you to make their storyline at least equally important.

A big clue: As noted in Lecture 1, the Protagonist is generally the character who goes through the most significant metamorphosis. Nemesis characters often don’t change at all. That should give you a leg up with your P character.

Make that metamorphosis damn interesting!

That’s why Clarice Starling works as well as she does in TSOTL: She’s plagued by nightmares based on a horror background re the death of her father and the mystery of what happened on that Montana farm.

Consider the words of screenwriter Ted Tally who wrote the script adaptation for TSOTL:

“And then, for reasons I’m not even sure of, I felt very moved, and still do, by Clarice Starling. By her courage and vulnerability–and I probably respond more to courage in a main character than any other quality. She’s in a male world, and she’s a student, and she’s orphaned… I was just deeply moved by her. And Thomas Harris had so artfully worked in mythic underpinnings–it just had this feeling that there’s the orphaned young woman making her way in the world, and there’s the good stepfather in Crawford and the evil stepfather who’s Lecter who are taking on her education. That’s a huge part of the story, in fact it’s the emotional heart of the whole story; her search for a missing father and her attempt to replaced that void which is never going to go away. The whole thing of saving the lamb and being able to save Catherine Martin is all tied up with her inability to save her own father when she was a child.”

Note how much affection he had for Clarice, how much compassion he felt for her. I’m sure he loved writing Lecter, but he still found a way to connect with the story’s Protagonist. And it’s largely through her metamorphosis.

My advice: Dig deeper into your Protagonist. You may not feel much of a connection to her because you don’t know her well enough yet, haven’t peeled back enough layers of her psyche to uncover cool, even surprising aspects of who she is.

For more of Ted Tally’s thoughts on TSOTL, go here.

What do you do when you find yourself working with a Protagonist who is less interesting than other characters?

Reader Question: Does one character “own” each scene?

August 5th, 2015 by

Question via email from Nick Whittle:

I just wanted to gain some clarity here – within a scene, am I right to think that one particular character “owns” the scene, or drives it? Not necessarily the protagonist but certainly only one character at a time in contained within the scene…and in doing so speaks the driving lines?

Addendum: If one character does own the scene is it entirely plausible that the ownership can pass to another actor within the scene or should rule of thumb be – “This is X’s scene. X is going to take this scene to where he/she/it wants and Y and Z will follow.”

Nick, I like the way you think. Nothing worse than a scene where characters have no goals… and therefore there is no drama due to the lack of conflicting goals… and the scene just lies there flat as a proverbial pancake. Like what was the point of that?

So my short response to your question is it’s a good way to think about a scene: Which character has the strongest sense of purpose in that very moment? What is their goal? What do they want, both in terms of the overall narrative and right here, right now? If one character is heavily motivated and has a clear purpose in mind as compared to other characters, then it’s likely the first character will, as you say, drive the scene.

And that’s fine, sometimes you need scenes like that. However per my first comment, generally speaking it’s beneficial for each character in a scene to have their own goal. This is one of the easiest, most direct ways to achieve conflict – when goals collide. In theory at least, you’ve got a scene in which different characters take the steering wheel (to carry your metaphor further) and try to maneuver events to fit their goal. Now you’ve got a vibrant scene, some good back and forth, and a central question: Who will win out?

Take the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which Andy, having just heard about a prisoner who has in effect confessed to the murder of his wife and her lover, goes to the warden’s office (it starts at 2:37 of the clip below):

Andy’s goal: Use this information to obtain his release from prison.
Norton’s goal: To keep Andy in prison.

Track the trajectory of the scene.

Beginning: We enter the scene late after Andy has conveyed the information to Norton. So the backstory of the scene would have had Andy driving it. Now Norton attempts to regain control by undercutting the validity of the prisoner’s confession.

Pivot: “How can you be so obtuse?”

Middle: With this comment by Andy, the dynamics of the scene switch with Andy pushing back against Norton, leading to a tonal shift in the warden’s attitude, declaring “This meeting is over.” In other words, he tries to gain control over the moment.

Pivot: “Sir, if I were ever to get out, I would never mentioned what goes on in here.”

End: Andy attempts to regain control by appealing to Norton’s sense of logic, but this declaration only incites Norton who quite demonstrably takes over the rest of the scene, calling in the guards, and telling them, “Solitary, a month.”

It’s a dynamic scene with both characters attempting to wrest the ‘steering wheel’ from each other.

So in answer to your second question, yes, a character may enter a scene ‘driving’ the action, then other characters may seize control, and indeed, who is in charge can shift back and forth.

But how to best shape the scene is to ground it in the characters and their respective goals, their sense of purpose, their personalities, their strategies.

By the way, this is another reason why using character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — is a great lens through which to look at scenes. Any character, no matter their primary archetype, can don the ‘mask’ of any archetype in any scene.

For instance in the scene above, Norton wears a Mentor mask in the beginning, using his cold logic to try to convince Andy this news he’s discovered is really meaningless. In the middle, Norton switches to a Trickster mask, turning away from Mentor mode – and presumed ally – toward enemy. In the end of the scene, Norton reveals his true colors by revealing his Nemesis face through his harsh treatment of Andy. Yet another way to look at how to craft scenes.

One final thought in the form of an observation by Elaine May and Mike Nichols, deriving from their days as a comedy duo and their sketch work: “Every scene is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.” In all three cases, we can see how what we’ve talked about here comes into play: What are the character’s goals? Who drives the scene? What masks do they wear to achieve their aims?

Great stuff and thanks for the question, Nick!

Readers, if you have any thoughts on the subject, please head to comments and opine away! How about this: What other movie scenes are examples of characters ‘driving’ the action?

Reader Question: What should I do if a project sells that is similar to a script I’m writing?

August 4th, 2015 by

From an Anonymous GITS Reader:

Big fan of your site. Easily one of the best screenwriter sites out there for info and inspiration. Anyways, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was putting the finishing touches on an outline of my current script – almost finished with 1st draft now – when a pitch was sold with the same general idea…

Now I’m used to hearing about parallel development so I pretty much knew that this was going to kill any chance of a sale. However, since I am an unrepped writer my main goal is to get reads from agents and managers so I was curious if you think my target “audience” would still request this script even though a similar idea has recently been sold.

First of all, let me share this sentiment with AGR and anybody else out there who has worked up a story only to see another project with a similar premise get set up:

It totally sucks!

I’ve had it happen more than once. There’s nothing quite like the gut-churning sensation you get when you open the trades and see the project you have been working on just sold to a studio. It gets to the point where you almost hate to read about script deals, always that nagging fear that through some hideous twist of fate, you’re about to discover you just got beat to the finish line by some other writer.

In other words, I feel your pain.

Before I get to your specific question, let me also add this: The simple fact is that this cruel experience is going to happen. You can almost bank on it. There are so many people writing screenplays, graphic novels, comic books, books, pitches, and so on… and only so many good ideas. Steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment.

Fortunately, AGR, you have three things working in your favor:

#1: As we have discussed many times on GITS, Hollywood movie studios operate upon the ‘similar but different’ principle. They are loathe to greenlight completely original stories because they represent big risks (unless, of course, it’s a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan project, their track records effectively minimizing the risk). That risk factor (read: fear of flop) is one major reason why the studios tend to look for stories that are ‘similar’ to other stories. Everything from remakes to sequels to familiar subject matter — those represent a smaller risk because since the original movie was a success, therefore, the logic goes, this new version should stand a good chance of being successful, too. So, AGR, if your script is similar but different than a project which recently sold, that fact could actually help you get your script read. Perverse logic, I know, but hey, if Hollywood knows anything at all, it’s perversion.

#2: Here’s another perverse thing: The mere fact that you generated an original story idea that happens to hew closely to that of a project that recently sold suggests that your creative instincts are in line with what the movie studios are looking for. One of my agents told me this after two ideas on our possible ‘to script’ list sold within a month. When you first hear it, you think, “Well, he’s just saying that to make me feel better.” But when you step back from the blunt trauma of seeing two your ideas snatched away, you realize that yes, you are in sync with the current buyer’s marketplace. So, AGR, as rotten as you may feel, hopefully you can see the broader picture and realize that the sale of this other project actually validates your own creative instincts. Which leads to the third point:

#3: Despite their hard line against reading unsolicited manuscripts, managers and agents actually want, even need to read new writers. And most of them aren’t reading a script with the hope of selling just that script, rather they’re hoping to find a writer they can nurture into a writing career. 10% of a single script sale is one thing. 10% of multiple years of script sales, pitch sales, OWA gigs, TV writing is a whole other thing. So the fact that you came up with a story idea similar to another project which sold could catch the attention of a possible rep. Maybe you’re not just a decent writer, but one who can generate solid original story ideas.

So in sum, I say go for it. Acknowledge to the reps that you’re aware of the other project (this shows that you savvy enough to track the acquisition and development market), point out whatever differences there are, and note that you have plenty of other equally commercial story concepts. And if you don’t, you know what you have to do.

Yes, that’s right: A story idea each day for a month.

But that’s a whole other story…

UPDATE: Here’s something from Ryan Mullaney in comments:

Rework the idea into something more original. I had to do it, just like everyone else at one time or another, and I ended up with something better than what I had originally, so there is a silver lining after all.

By all means, yes. Probably the first thing you should do after discovering a similar project to yours (after knocking back a stiff drink). See if you can twist your story concept to make it more different than similar. Even something as simple as switching the gender of your Protagonist can work.

Nate Winslow said this:

Seeing the post Scott put up about DEVIL got me thinking about the number of times Hollywood has “doubled up” on their premises for produced films, which reminded me of the OTHER stuck-in-an-elevator-thriller that just sold.

So, DEVIL got made, DOWN is on its way to getting made, and what are the odds that someone buys two scripts that even involve elevators as a main plot point, much less the major location? (Not to mention they both start with D!)

And then a three or four years ago, again–who would have thought that out of all the genres and premises out their, we’d find two movies released in the same year about…19th Century magicians? The Illusionist and The Prestige came out within months of eachother, if I remember correctly.

Off the top of my head, there are at least three sets of movies covering the same subject that are currently in production/greenlit/racing to the greenlight: competing Three Musketeers movies, competing Don Quixote movies and competing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movies. The trend there with the current ones being that they’re all adaptations, but still. So. Just heaping the evidence onto the pile that already lets us know that Hollywood digs the same but different. And in these cases, sometimes doesn’t even bother with the “different” part.

To which I responded:

You can add K-9 and Turner & Hootch to your list. How about 18 Again, Like Father Like son, Big, and a fourth one that I can’t quite remember, all of them coming out within a year of each other? This springs, I think, from the fear that underlies much of how studios operate. Hard to spring for an original, fresh idea, but if Studio A buys a body-swapping movie, the execs in Studio B think, “Hey, if THEY think that’s a great subject matter, maybe WE should try to find something.” Put out the word to reps, dig through their development trough. The latter is pretty much what happened, as I understand it, with Turner & Hootch – it had been collecting dust at Disney until K-9 sold, then all of a sudden they sprang into action, hiring new writers, and so on.

In other words, sometimes it actually HELPS to have a similar project out there.

Finally Teenie said:

Scott, your reply gives us all hope and when you stop to think about it, it is amazing the amount of similar films or re-makes being made.

Yes, even at times where your project gets blown out of the water completely by something else. I remember reading an interview with David Milch once, where he spent months working up a big TV project set in ancient Rome. He pitched it to HBO. They said, “Sorry, we’ve just bought a project called ‘Rome.'” They liked some of the themes and characters in Milch’s pitch, so he switched it around, and pitched them something else — which became “Deadwood.”

So again yes, there’s always hope.

[Originally posted July 22, 2010]

Reader Question: How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

July 24th, 2015 by

Question from Thomas:

Hello Scott,

I’m beginning to write screenplays; however, I wanted to know how good at stylized writing do I need to be to become a successful screenwriter.

I aim to describe everything clearly. Clear enough for the cast and crew to understand and see the story in their minds.

Most scripts I read are so colorful and stylish. Is that something I should work on or do I just focus on telling my story clearly?

Thomas, your question goes to the heart of a writer’s voice. So a few things.

First, we have to draw a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. The latter is a blueprint for the production team to make a movie. The former is what we, as writers, write to sell the project and move into development.

They can be two different beasts.

Whereas as shooting script (or production draft) may be much more about being “clear enough for the cast and crew to understand,” a selling script has one audience: The buyer. We are trying to engage the hell out of him/her.

Which leads to the second point: Entertainment is at a premium with a selling script. You may have heard of David Mamet’s one rule for script-writing: “Never be boring.” We have zero chance of getting a script to a production draft state unless we get it set up in the first place. And to do that, while clarity is important, entertaining the reader is more important.

This, Thomas, is why you see “colorful and stylish” writing in the scripts you have been reading. At this stage, we want to do whatever we can to excite a script reader about our story.

So yes, my advice is you do have to pay attention to your script’s style.

And this leads to the third point, something I raised earlier: Voice. Specifically what I call Narrative Voice.

Whatever the script’s genre is, the style exhibited primarily in scene description should reflect that genre. An action script should read hyperbolic. A comedy script should read funny. A thriller script should read intense. A horror script should read scary.

Here’s the thing. A novelist has a lot more leeway to convey their voice to a reader. Not so a screenwriter. Dialogue, yes. But not much else. So we need to embrace scene description as a platform to entertain and engage a reader.

Hence stylish writing.

With a selling script, clarity is important. Establishing a voice which entertains the reader in scene description, more important.

How to learn to do this? Read scripts. Focus on spec scripts which have sold in the last few years. Then test it out. Experiment with your own writing.

Give expression to your own Narrative Voice. It’s a major selling point for any spec script.

Do you have a screenwriting question?

July 16th, 2015 by

In the 7+ years I’ve been hosting this blog, I have received a lot of questions. Via email, Twitter, and here at GITS. I have tried to provide my thoughts in response to all of them which has resulted in a nifty free online resource which you can access here — over 300 questions sorted by category (e.g., Business 101, Characters, Film Industry, Format).

The really cool thing is because of the quality people who frequent this site, the resulting discussion for each question oftentimes provides even greater insight into the subject at hand. So if you have a question related to screenwriting, TV writing, or writing in general, there’s a good chance you will find some solid information in archive linked above.

However if you have a question you can’t find an answer to in the archive, feel free to post it in comments. Or if you prefer to be anonymous, you may email me, and we can handle it that way.

I should note when I provide feedback to a question, it is my opinion, I do not claim it to be Truth From On High. However my opinions are informed ones as I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years and my involvement with the blog and the Black List has afforded me a unique connection to the business.

So if you have a question, let me hear from you. Or just browse through the archives. And if you have writing associates or a writing group, spread the wealth by sharing this link: Go Into The Story Reader Questions.

And as always… Onward!

Reader Question: How do I make supporting characters distinctive and interesting?

July 1st, 2015 by

Reader question via email from Joe:

Hi Scott! A question about supporting characters.

How do I make supporting characters that don’t necessarily have that much screen time but that I feel are essential to the story distinctive and interesting?

In the script I’m writing at the moment, I introduce a girlfriend and later fiancé to my main character at around page 25. As the story progresses, I use her in 7-8 scenes but she never gets any major screen time. I did this mostly because I felt that the story needed a strong female character to balance the otherwise male-dominated movie. I do have other female roles in the story but none of those characters are featured in more than one scene.

In the movie Rush, the character of Suzy Miller is featured in only 5 scenes or so, yet she is played by A-List actor Olivia Wilde who receives top billing. (I only used Rush as an example since it was this movie that made me think of the question).

What I think makes this character worthwhile is that she has a small arc (she decides she doesn’t want to be with James Hunt, a notorious playboy, but with a man that adores her) and she shows/brings forth something about one of the main characters (Hunt’s angry temper when he doesn’t get any sponsors).

But other than this, how do I create “small” supporting characters that are interesting, that contribute to the story and that actors want to play?

First off, Joe, it’s great you’re even aware of this concern. I read a lot of scripts where the writer treats the more central characters pretty well, but handles minor characters with less care and attention. They’re generic. Flat. Uninspired. Forgettable. When I run across characters like that, I know the writer needs to up their game. Conversely when I read a script in which all of the characters — regardless of their line or page count — come across as distinctive, vibrant individuals, that’s one sign I’m dealing with a writer who knows his/her chops. And simply being conscious of the need to handle every character well is fundamental to this aspect of the craft.

The next thing: Be clear about each character’s function. Why do they exist in this story? What purpose do they play in the narrative? If you are clear on this and that function is, indeed, important to the plot, then you are on the road toward crafting a memorable character in part because their function is key to the telling of the story.

Your example — Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) in Rush — is a good one. You already cite some of the keys to her role, but it seems to me the most important point for her character’s existence is this: Her eventual divorce from Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) serves as a direct contrast to the relationship between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and his wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). They have a successful marriage and her importance in Niki’s life is one of the reasons he quits racing, i.e., he doesn’t want to jeopardize losing her. Not so with Hunt and Miller. She comes to understand that she will always be second to Hunt’s obsession with racing. Her affair with Richard Burton can be seen as an act of provocation to spur their divorce.

So yes, Miller’s role is a secondary one, but it is key in presenting a contrast between Hunt and Lauda in terms of what they deem to be most important in their lives.

Once you understand a character’s narrative function, no matter whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary in terms of page count or influence, I would encourage you to use the same character development tools. Questionnaires. Biographies. Interviews. Monologues. In other words, engage each character, no matter how ‘small’ they are in terms of the plot.

Obviously this is scalable. You don’t need to spend as much time delving into the life of BALDING COP or OBNOXIOUS CUSTOMER as you do PROTAGONIST or ATTRACTOR, but you should do enough so that each character emerges into your consciousness – their physical nature, voice, mannerisms.

And that in my view is the key takeaway from this discussion: Engage the character directly. If you treat each character with respect, curiosity, and interest, no matter how large or small their contribution to the story, they ought to come alive to you. After all, every character is the Protagonist in their own story. SNOT-NOSED KID may only have one line of dialogue in the entire script, but his/her experience in the story universe is that they are the Protagonist.

Once a character does come to life for you, focus on what makes them unique. How do they carry themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? What about the way they talk is distinctive? What of who they are strikes you as being worthy of inclusion in a movie?

So to sum up: Determine what the character’s narrative function is. Engage them directly in developing their character. Look for distinctive aspects of their personality which can make their role entertaining and memorable.

Readers, what do you think? How do you go about making your secondary characters unique and memorable? If you have some additional thoughts, please head to comments.

Reader Question: Does a story absolutely need an antagonist?

June 18th, 2015 by

Reader question from Manwhit:

hey scott,

does a script absolutely need an antagonist character? is it possible to just create obstacles to what a character wants and not have them emanate from antagonists? for example, can there just be obstacles created by the circumstances of the outside world or even by the protagonist themselves. i.e. can they be their own worst enemy and cause the conflict by making poor decisions which stem from their flaws? can you think of any movies that use this scenario?

hope that makes sense. thanks!

The official answer I’d offer is no: A movie does not absolutely need an antagonist character (what I prefer to call a Nemesis). However a movie does require an antagonist function — that is some sort of oppositional dynamic(s) to confront and challenge the Protagonist.

An example of a movie that doesn’t have a Nemesis character per se (except the ocean) is Cast Away (2000), where the Protagonist Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) is stranded for four years alone on a remote island. In this story, geography and weather generate the primary conflict in the life of the Protagonist by creating his isolation and standing in the way of his escape. It’s a successful story, however you know the filmmakers were up against it when they had to create a ‘character’ in Wilson, a volleyball Nolan doctored up so he could have ‘someone’ to talk to.

That said, Hwood much prefers strong, compelling, and dynamic Nemesis characters. Why? Part of the reason is that stories generally benefit from having a Protagonist vs. Nemesis dynamic, as it usually provides a much more visceral and personal conflict. Also a good Nemesis such as Buffalo Bill / James Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption, Jeff Sheldrake in The Apartment, Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope, and Hans Gruber in Die Hard can be a fascinating character, driving up the tension in the story – how will the Protagonist overcome this worthy opponent – and therefore the entertainment experience for the viewer.

Now specific to this question – “can they be their own worst enemy and cause the conflict by making poor decisions which stem from their flaws?” – the answer is yes, a character can work at odds against their best interest. But does that constitute a Nemesis function or rather is that more an example of their Disunity state, a conflict between what they want (External World / conscious goal) and what they need (Internal World / unconscious goal)?

Oftentimes a Protagonist begins the story in a state of Disunity. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (Judy Garland) wants to leave and get away from her home, as expressed in the song she sings in Act One, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Indeed, she runs away from home, albeit in order to save Toto from being recaptured and taken away by Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). But what she needs is precisely the opposite – to feel like her home in Kansas is a home. Remember she is an orphan, she is the only child on the farm, she has no job like everyone else, so in sum she doesn’t feel like she fits in – her home doesn’t feel like a home. In a way, her entire journey to Oz is to give her experiences, primarily in bonding with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, who are projections of three workers on the farm (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory), and in feeling what it’s like to be separated from (especially) her Auntie Em, to change her world view: So that when she returns to consciousness in the farmhouse, she does feel like she belongs, leading to the final words in the movie, “There’s no place like home.”

“Here’s the deal, Auntie Em. Turns out I had to go to Oz in order to discover that this place really is my home.
Stories are kinda strange like that, aren’t they?”

So in desiring to leave the farm and actually run away, Dorothy acts in opposition to what she needs, and that does create a certain measure of conflict. But it is her struggle with an actual Nemesis character – Elmira Gulch / the Wicked Witch of the West – which creates the most significant set of challenges for Dorothy. And like so many Nemesis characters, Gulch / Wicked Witch represents a projection of Dorothy’s shadow self – someone who is a loner, who doesn’t feel understood, who doesn’t like her life. One of my students in the last university class I taught had an interesting thought: Might Elmira Gulch be a sort of forecast what Dorothy could have become as she grew old if she didn’t go through her Oz transformation-journey?

To circle back to your original question: No, a movie does not need a Nemesis character, but it does require an antagonist function to create opposition to the Protagonist. However most movies fill that function primarily through the presence of a Nemesis character. And while a Protagonist character may act against their best interests, thereby providing opposition to themselves, more often, I think, this is a reflection of the P’s original Disunity state, something that gets worked out in their transformation-journey (Deconstruction-Reconstruction), ending up (typically) in a Unity state.

[Originally posted December 19, 2009]