5 Screenwriting Skills: #1 — Talent

August 18th, 2014 by

[Originally posted March 18, 2013]

During the nearly 5 years I’ve run this blog, I have been privileged to do one-on-one interviews with a number of screenwriters, especially this year as I set a goal to post a Q&A per week for 2013.

Over the course of those interviews, it’s been fascinating to learn the variety of approaches to the craft, yet at the same time how certain themes recur.

Recently I was struck by five personality traits and five skill sets that keep popping up. So I thought it would be helpful to do a series, a checklist if you will, of aspects of things we should be mindful of as we develop as screenwriters. Today:

Screenwriting Skill #1: Talent

What is talent? If you root around the web with that question, you’ll find a wide variety of opinions. I even did a word search for “talent” in this blog’s On Writing archive. I came up with an interesting and diverse set of quotes:

“I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity,
will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.” – Gordon Lish

This would appear to diminish the importance of a writer’s talent. Of course, Lish is speaking as someone who has talent and therefore its presence may come as no big deal to him. Besides I suspect he’s taking a dip in a pool of hyperbole to make a point about the importance of perseverance, application, will, desire and all that, something with which I think we would all agree. But still, talent as “quite irrelevant”?

How about another quote:

“Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills.
You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong.” – Jeffrey A. Carver

This is interesting because Carver draws a distinction between talent and skill. If we were in a classroom setting discussing the concepts in a hypothetical manner, I wouldn’t have a problem with this. However we are talking about screenwriting and that by default is tied inevitably to the business of making movies. And while practice, practice, practice is critical – something I’ll be writing about this week – talent is absolutely essential to a screenwriter’s success.

Therefore I will stick with this simple definition of talent: natural aptitude. For purposes of this post, it means that an individual has a natural aptitude for writing.

Now even young Will pictured here in Shakespeare in Love demonstrated at the beginning of the movie that talent alone was not enough to succeed. In his particular case, while his conscious goal may have been to become a great playwright, he was essentially lost, leading a shallow existence carousing, chasing women and basically not taking his craft seriously. Fortunately he found a muse in the form of Viola, a relationship which took him to the heights of passion and love, and the depths of misery and despair. For it was only then, having experienced the extremes of life, going beyond the shallow surface of his previous existence, that his talent was able to rise to glory.

And that’s the point: Everything he did — indeed everything we do as writers — is all in service to our talent, to create paths so that it may stride into the light of day, onto our keyboards or pads of paper, and finally manifest in a completed story.

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.” — Jack Kerouac

Leave it to Kerouac to gives us a take on the subject that anyone who works in the Hollywood film industry would appreciate. Talent delivers.

We’ve all heard of a talent show, right? As screenwriters, that is the bottom line: We need to show our talent. Of course, it is not the only requisite skill as we all know and I will discuss the rest of this week, but at some fundamental level, we need to have a level of talent that enables us to wrangle a story, put it down into 100 or so pages of a screenplay, and somehow make a magical connection with readers.

So what about The Big Question looming over this discussion, one we have asked or will ask of ourselves at some point: Do I have talent as a writer?

Each of us has to come to our own answer. And not only if we have talent, but what kindof talent, say for example, we are strong when it comes to dialogue or characters, but less so with plot or themes (or whatever).

How to determine these things? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know this: If you are drawn to writing, a path you feel compelled to explore, then you must believe you have talent, you must act on that assumption. You will get nowhere otherwise.

As we explored in this series last week, there are certain traits that benefit a screenwriter: Passion, Courage, Consistency, Flexibility, Persistence. All of those facilitate our skills. And a primary member of a screenwriter’s skill set has got to be talent, more specifically being able to show our talent.

How about you? What are your thoughts on the relative importance of talent when it comes to writing?

Tomorrow: Screenwriting Skill #2: Knowledge.

From last week:

5 Screenwriting Traits: #1 — Passion

5 Screenwriting Traits: #2 — Courage

5 Screenwriting Traits: #3 — Consistency

5 Screenwriting Traits: #4 — Flexibility

5 Screenwriting Traits: #5 — Persistence

Movie Trailer: “Mommy”

August 18th, 2014 by

Written by Xavier Dolan

A widowed single mother, raising her violent son alone, finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself into their household.


Release Date: 8 October 2014 (France)

Free Screenwriting Resource: Script Reading & Analysis

August 18th, 2014 by

On a semi-regular basis, we will take up a movie script and spend a week breaking it down at several levels of analysis: General Background, Structure, Characters, Theme, and Dialogue. Sometimes we even watch the movie simultaneously around the world, then tweet about it live, what we have come to call a TweetCast.

This series speaks to the importance of reading scripts and watching movies. Here are a couple of examples of the type of analysis we get into in this series:

Gladiator [Action]

General Comments





Michael Clayton [Drama]

General Comments





TweetCast Transcript

I am thinking we need to bring this back on a more regular basis, perhaps monthly… because if you are not reading movie scripts, then you are missing out on one of the best ways to go to film school on the cheap.

Go here for the link to dozens of movies we have studied in the Go Into The Story Script Reading & Analysis series.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in August, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 15,000 posts and 70+ archive topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many, many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

On Writing

August 18th, 2014 by

“A character is never a whole person, but just those parts of him that fit the story or the piece of writing. So the act of selection is the writer’s first step in delineating character. From what does he select? From a whole mass of what Bernard DeVoto used to call, somewhat clinically, “placental material.” He must know an enormous amount more about each of his characters than he will ever use directly—childhood, family background, religion, schooling, health, wealth, sexuality, reading, tastes, hobbies—an endless questionnaire for the writer to fill out. For example, the writer knows that people speak, and therefore his characters will describe themselves indirectly when they talk. Clothing is a means of characterization. In short, each character has a style of his own in everything he does. These need not all be listed, but the writer should have a sure grasp of them. If he has, his characters will, within the book, read like people.”

– William Sloane

Via Advice To Writers.

Daily Dialogue — August 18, 2014

August 18th, 2014 by

“It looks to me like the best part of you ran down the crack of your momma’s ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress!”

Full Metal Jacket (1987), screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Michael Herr & Gustav Hasford, novel by Gustav Hasford

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Smack Talk.

Trivia: It is a common misconception that much, if not all, of R. Lee Ermey’s dialogue during the Parris Island sequence was improvised. In several interviews Ermey himself has stated that he worked closely with Kubrick to help mold the script so that it was more believable, all while retaining certain dialogue crucial to Kubrick’s vision. While filming the opening scene, where he disciplines Pvt. Cowboy, he says Cowboy is the type of guy who would have sex with another guy “and not even have the goddamned common courtesy to give him a reach-around”. Stanley Kubrick immediately yelled cut and went over to Ermey and asked, “What the hell is a reach-around?” Ermey politely explained what it meant. Kubrick laughed and re-shot the scene, telling Ermey to keep the line.

Dialogue On Dialogue: This is some damn serious smack talk, but with a purpose: To establish Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) as an authority figure and start the process of breaking down the recruits… in order to build them up as killers.

Go Into The Story Week In Review: August 11-August 17, 2014

August 17th, 2014 by

Links to the week’s most notable posts:

5 Screenwriting Traits: #1 — Passion

5 Screenwriting Traits: #2 — Courage

5 Screenwriting Traits: #3 — Consistency

5 Screenwriting Traits: #4 — Flexibility

5 Screenwriting Traits: #5 — Persistence

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 8

Daily Dialogue Theme for Next Week: Smack Talk

David Simon writes about Robin Williams in “Homicide: Life on the Street”

Declare Your Independents: Volume 25

“Destroy property, defy authority… and take people’s clothes off”

Do you start scripts, but not finish them?

“For Would-Be Screenwriter, Enough False Starts To Fill A Book”

Free Screenwriting Resource: 1, 2, 7, 14

Free Screenwriting Resource: Character Types

Free Screenwriting Resource: Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs

Free Screenwriting Resource: Great Characters

Free Screenwriting Resource: Great Scenes

Free Screenwriting Resource: Screenwriting 101

Free Screenwriting Resource: Writing Mantras

Go Into The Story interview: Frank DeJohn and David Hedges [2013 Nicholl Winners]

Great Character: Sarah Connor (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

How to Write a Rom-Com That’s True to Life (and Love): Tips from the Screenwriter of What If

Interview (Audio): Craig Mazin with Brian Koppelman (“The Moment”)

Interview (Video): John Michael McDonagh & Brendan Gleeson (Calvary)

Interview (Video): Peter Tolan

Interview (Written): Chris Sparling

On Writing: Ray Bradbury

Reader Question: What is a good number of scripts to have in my portfolio?

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Danny Boyle

Screenwriting News (August 11-August 17, 2014)

Script To Screen: Big Fish

The History of Sound at the Movies

Writing and the Creative Life: Look… Don’t Overlook

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 8

August 17th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Every Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt in which Wilder describes his writing process with I.A.L. Diamond comes from Pages 41-42:

CC: Your published screenplays are extremely lively and readable, and though you always work with a collaborator, the scripts all have a single, idiosyncratic voice. For example, in the screenplay of Some Like It Hot, the last line of narrative reads: “And that’s the end of the story, or at least what the public can see.” Or in the script of The Apartment, the final line is, “And that’s about it. Story-wise.”

BW: Yes.

CC: Is that something you dictated to Izzy Diamond? Or did Diamond write the narrative?

BW: [Quickly] I… I don’t know. All I know is that I’m standing there, like a conductor, you know. And I have my yellow tablet, and I write, and he types. And we compare. Then we agree on something, then we go back and forth. Most of the writing happened in one room, at the Goldwyn office, a great place. I lived there. I had a kitchen, a bed, a shower, and a bathroom. Iz would show me pages and I would correct them, we would work on them. And off they went…

The final scene of Some Like It Hot, we wrote on a weekend in the studio. We just did not have it. We had the guys escaping, jumping into the motorboat of Mr. Joe E. Brown. And a little dialogue between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis. And then we came to the unmasking, when Jack Lemmon says, “You know I cannot marry you because…I smoke.” And finally he takes that wig off and says, “Look, I’m a man.” Now we needed a line for Joe E. Brown and could not find it. But somewhere in the beginning of our discussion, Iz said, “Nobody’s perfect.” And I said, “Look, let’s go back to your line, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ Let’s send it to the mimeograph department so that they have something, and then we’re going to really sit down and make a real funny last line.”

We never found the line, so we went with “Nobody’s perfect.” The audience just exploded at the preview in Westwood…

It’s always very difficult for me to say, “This is mine and this is his,” always, except of course I have to give him credit for “Nobody’s perfect.” Because that’s the thing they jump on, and I say, “That was a temporary line, suggested by Mr. Diamond.” And it wound up to be our funniest last line. I was asked by many people, “What is going to happen now? What happens now to Lemmon, what happens to his husband?” And I always said, “I have no idea.” “Nobody’s perfect.” Leave it up there on the screen. You cannot top that.

I have featured this video before, but let’s revisit it because it is perfect to accompany with this post. It features Wilder giving a speech in which he describes how he and Izzy worked as writers, putting in “bankers hours”. He also talks about how neither of them thought much of the final line in Some Like It Hot, which is according to the AFI the 48th most quotable line in movie history. The most touching moment comes toward the end of Wilder’s speech when he says this:

“He didn’t tell for four years that he had that fatal disease. It was only in the last six weeks that he confided in me. Well, it’s lonely now in that office of ours. I look at that empty chair and I miss him so much. On his birthday maybe, I should put the red rose there, like DiMaggio for Marilyn.”

In those few seconds, we see in this famously cantankerous man a genuine sense of loss and appreciation for the unique partnership he and Diamond had.

That’s worth the watch in and of itself, but there’s more. In the last 5 minutes of the video, Wilder directs two actors doing a short play Diamond had written in his school days about two screenwriters. Those actors? None other than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Some takeaways:

* For anyone who would tell you a screenplay can only contain description that an audience member can see, that we can’t use so-called “unfilmables,” all you have to do is read any Wilder and Diamond script. While they don’t go overboard with it, within their scene description, they comment on what transpires — a lot. This contributes not only to the atmosphere of scenes, it also makes for a more entertaining read. To wit: “And that’s about it. Story-wise.” Point being, you have the freedom as a screenwriter to editorialize like that. Just be judicious… and make sure it adds to the experience of the read.

* Elsewhere in “Conversations,” Wilder talks about one of the values of working with another writer: “Because I like to keep strict hours, there was a responsibility if I had a collaborator.” If you work with a writing partner, you know what he’s talking about. But even if you don’t, this speaks to the importance — at least for many writers — of creating a structure that keeps you pounding out pages. You have a responsibility to your story… and to yourself as a writer to be consistent in depositing your derriere on chair and writing.

* The fact the line “Nobody’s perfect” is considered the funniest ending line of a Wilder movie proves, once again, that writing a story is in essence about wrangling magic. You never know for sure what’s going to work… or not work. But if you immerse yourself in your story and your work, there’s a good chance at key points, you will intersect with the story’s magic, and surprises will emerge.

* “You cannot top that.” That reminds me of Wilder’s ten principles of screenwriting which I have posted here. Here are the last two:

9. The 3rd act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then…
10. …that’s it. Don’t hang around.

This is one of the things that is so great about Wilder: his impeccable sense of timing, like knowing when to exit a scene. When you have achieved the point of the scene, that’s it. You cannot top that. Don’t hang around. Get on to the next scene. Same thing with your story’s ending. If you think about it, in both The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, there really is nothing in the way of what we would typically think of as a denouement. As Wilder indicates in the excerpt above, he has no idea what happens with Lemmon and Joe E. Brown. Sometimes the best endings are those which resolve, but don’t make explicit what it all means. It takes a skilled, experienced eye to know when that’s the case, but this is good advice no matter what — to remind us not to overstay our welcome in any scene or story ending. Get done with it. Then get on with it.

Next week: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Interview: Frank DeJohn and David Hedges [2013 Nicholl Winners]

August 17th, 2014 by

Frank DeJohn and David Hedges are one of five recipients of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting for their historical drama screenplay “Legion”. It’s a terrific story set in the latter days of the Roman Empire and garnered a lot of attention for the duo including being hired by A&E to write “The One”, described as a “coming-of-age story of exploring Jesus’ early life and formative years as he comes to learn he is the Son of God and is destined for greatness.”

DeJohn Hedges Final

Frank, a businessman, and David, a K-9 policeman, have had an unusual path to Hollywood success, so I was pleased to be able to interview them at length about their respective backgrounds, their script “Legion,” and their approach to the craft of screenwriting.

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “We came across a reference to a Roman fort that in 9 AD that held out for three days against the German uprising. We coupled that fact with a real character, Marcus Caelius, a centurion who died in that battle, and fashioned a story about his last days commanding the fort.”

Part 2: “People that I’ve worked with on our SWAT team, they’re the same guys. The only difference is now they’re wearing Kevlar and carrying AR-15’s, whereas back then they were wearing steel helmets and carrying a gladius. Nothing has really changed.”

Part 3: “She was a boy, of course, when we wrote it. Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we reverse the gender?’ It opened up for us completely.”

Part 4: ” I was actually scooping dog poop in my backyard. My wife handed me the phone, and said, ‘It’s some guy named Greg.’ I’m thinking, ‘God, what’s he selling?’ It was Greg Beal, from the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, and he said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a finalist.’”

Part 5: ” I like to work up biographies for each major character the same way an actor would prepare for a role. Get to know them inside and out.”

Part 6: “We’ve been dealing with this quite a bit lately, because the minute you get that phone call, everything does change. You don’t get to write when you feel like it anymore. The question becomes, ‘Can you be a professional writer?’”

David and Frank are repped by UTA and BenderSpink.

Screenwriting News (August 11-August 17, 2014)

August 17th, 2014 by

Stephanie Allain and Lenore Kletter adapting memoir for untitled Misty Copeland project for New Line Cinema.

Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec writing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 for Paramount.

Will Beall and Kurt Johnstad writing separate “Aquaman” scripts for Warner Bros.

Pamela Gray adapting drama novel “The Husband’s Secret” for CBS Films.

Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes writing sequels Journey 3 and Journey 4 for New Line Cinema.

Dennis McNiholas adapting animated short “Henchmen” for Bron Studios and Gary Sanchez Productions.

Bert V. Royal adapting Broadway musical “13″ for CBS Films.

Shane Salerno adapting Mack Bolan book series for his company The Story Factory.

Seth M. Sherwood writing horror prequel “Leatherface” for Millennium Films.

Will Staples writing untitled animal-trafficking project for Warner Bros. Pictures and Appian Way.

Free Screenwriting Resource: Great Scenes

August 17th, 2014 by

When you break it down, screenwriting is scene-writing. Scripts generally have anywhere between 60-100 scenes, so it’s imperative we know the ins and outs of how to write a solid scene.

But more than that: A solid entertaining scene.

How to do that? One thing you can do is study great movie scenes. Analyze them. What is their point in relation to the plot? What is the scene’s beginning, middle and end? Why are these particular characters in this scene? What is the conflict in the scene?

Ask key questions. Dig into the scene. See how and why it works. Then hopefully some of that knowledge — and magic — will wear off on you.

Go here to access dozens of Great Scenes I have analyzed over the years.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in August, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 15,000 posts and 70+ archive topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many, many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!