There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.This week I’ve decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:
PAUL MAZURSKY (Harry and Tonto, Down and Out in Beverly Hills)
“In almost everything I’ve done I’ve tried to see the whole, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever done I ever really did see the whole at the beginning of writing. As the process of writing commenced, at some point… and this always is frightening… it would start to go off in places, and those places would sometimes be… well, they would make me feel elated because they were coming out nicely and real characters were taking over, or they’d made me nervous because they’d be so far away from the original idea.
“I never think what is a good theme. I never think about it, I just think about ideas that plots or people… I never say to myself, well, let’s make a film about the state of marriage in America today. I guess I’m afraid of pretense. Not to say that people who think about things are pretentious, but I sort of agree with Sam Goldwyn who said, ‘If you have a message, use Western Union.’”
ROY HUGGINS (I Love Trouble, creator of “The Rockford Files”
“A screenplay is a series of interesting scenes. Too often scenes are boring in order to head to an unusual ending. This defeats the purpose of what the writer is trying to do – keep the audience’s attention. The writer should work the story through, scene by scene, never jumping ahead until the scene he’s been working on works and is interesting.”
CHARLIE KAUFMAN (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)
“My theory about creative work is that 99 percent of it is intention. When you go in with the intention of exploring something real, then that’s what you’ll get no matter what’s around it. It may not even be successful—people may not like it and it may make no money—but that is what you’ll have. And if you go into something with the intention of showing off and just being absurd for absurdity’s sake, then hey, that’s what you’ll get. I’m interested in trying to find a real moment between people, and hopefully that’s what people get out of my work.
“I honestly don’t think I ever really knew the rules enough to break them. I feel like I knew how to write a TV script because I’d watched a lot of TV as a kid, and because I had a natural affinity for understanding how comedy works—joke, set-up, punchline, that sort of thing. When I started screenwriting, I never really knew what I was doing, but I instinctively understood how to do it.
“Most screenwriting is very formulaic writing, and the reason my stuff breaks away from that is that I’m just not interested in the formula. But maybe it’s in there in my head, and on some other level I do understand how I’m breaking away from it. I’ve never really thought about it that way… Sometimes I do things as a reaction to the conservativeness of the medium. But more often, it’s just that I feel I have the freedom to do whatever I want in my writing.”
ELEANOR PERRY (Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Swimmer)
“In my head, although it’s not obvious in the screenplay, is a three-act structure. And the Greeks were right… that’s all there is to it. The three-act structure works. So that I don’t mean there’s 35 pages in every act… it isn’t rigid. But if you remember that in the first act you set up the problem, you set up the characters, you set up the setting. Then the second act you go into the complications and the conflicts and the confrontations and in the third act you resolve everything. That is roughly the structure of every film anyway.
“Each writer starts differently, but I think the only valid way is to start with character. Character is plot. Character is story. The human behavior and human feelings and emotions and thought is what makes a story.
“I always start with a scene I adore. Of course later I have to adjust it 80 times to fit the beginning and the set and everything else… but it’s worth it because it loosens, it opens the gates, and you have something on paper and it’s good.”
I can hear the subtext of your thoughts in reading this series of posts: Why is Myers bothering us with this news? Because it’s the truth. And if you’ve run into this teacher or that who suggests they have the key to screenwriting success or there is a secret formula to writing a hit screenplay, you deserve to know there is no such thing.
Professional screenwriters know this. They understand full well how each writer has to go on their own unique journey to find their voice. Frankly it’s one of the reasons some screenwriters express public skepticism about the very idea that a so-called screenwriting guru can bring any value to the table.
I disagree with that because there are writers, teachers, and mentors who do have things of value to say about the craft. But it’s definitely a case of buyer beware. It’s incumbent upon you to test everything you hear and read — including anything I say — against your own developing sense of yourself as a writer.
[Originally posted March 3, 2011]