Today in Part 6, Kelly provides her take on several aspects of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: Some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
Kelly: I don’t know. Hmmm. Good question. They just come into my head. Normally triggered by something I see or read or something someone says. A lot of ideas spring up from things that have happened in my life. In fact, I want to write about an experience I had at the Austin Film Festival. Maybe you’ll be in it!
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep–writing (i.e., brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining)? Which of the aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time and focus to?
Kelly: Research. That’s it. Much to some people’s chagrin, I don’t outline, and it drives them nutso. But I don’t. I cause myself a lot more work by doing it the way I do it, but I often let the story tell me what it’s going to do. I am sort of coming round to the idea that outlining might be helpful, and I think I may have to do it on one of my next projects because I am going to write it with someone else and they are a stickler for outlines (because they are boring and anally retentive), but yeah, I’m gonna cave.
Did I answer the question? Which aspects do I—- yeah, research? Oh and making playlists! And finding pictures/objects but I’m about to into that below.
Scott: How do you go about developing your characters? Any specific tips or tools you find yourself using regularly?
Kelly: With Banks I was lucky in that they pre–existed, so they were kind of drawn out for me. I surround my computer with pictures of my characters. If they exist then I use the real people — Walt, PL, Richard. If they don’t then I’ll find pictures of what I think they look like and do that instead. Once I have a face I can imagine all sorts of things onto it. Then sometimes I will find odd things in old junk stores and think “Oh, Ralph would have that.” So I’ll buy it and put it by the picture. I end up with a desk full of bits and pieces by the time I finish writing something– it’s chaos.
Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters’ voices? How can a writer develop their ability writing dialogue?
Kelly: Say the words. Say them out loud. Do they sound like a real person speaking? Yes? Now speak them again, do they sound like the character talking? Would this person use that word? Would that person lose the ends of their sentences? Nobody has the same cadence or tone. I don’t say ‘awesome’ the way Walt would say awesome. PL would never say awesome. Be true to the voice. Was the person brought up in a hot climate? Then they probably speak slowly, conservatively, in a drawn out way. What words sound good when drawn out like that? Dialogue and not having it feel like it’s you talking is hard. When working on 50, E L James used to say to me all the time ‘I can hear you saying that!’ and she was right. Trying to divorce oneself from one’s own way of speaking is hard, but I think that’s the most important ability to hone.
Scott: How would you define theme? How important is it? Do you start with themes or do they arise in the context of developing and writing the story?
Kelly: I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously.
I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.
Scott: What do you think about when writing a scene? What are your goals?
Kelly: Mainly lunch. Then dinner. Then bed. Bed is always my goal.
Every scene has to be doing something. It has to be moving the story along, peeling off a layer of the onion so to speak.
The goal in its simplest form is to be further along in the story, to know more, to understand something better at the end of the scene than when you started. If your scene isn’t doing any of that, then it’s just there because it’s pretty. Cut it.
Scott: What keys do you have to write entertaining scene description?
Kelly: House keys, garage keys, car keys.
Or qwertyuiop and all those fiddly ones underneath. Seriously?
Write it short, then halve what you wrote, then halve it again.
Brian Duffield is incredible at scene description. “Jane Got a Gun” is a master class in how to do it beautifully, effectively and economically. When anyone asks me about prose in a screenplay, I point them at that script.
Scott: When you finish a first draft, you are faced with the inevitable rewriting process. Are there some keys you have to rewriting your scripts and if so what are they?
Kelly: I actually prefer re-writing. The first draft is always this crazy messy bastard (because I don’t outline), and my favourite part is going through and slashing that bastard to pieces.
Perhaps I should have asked if I could swear in this thing before I started writing. Too late now!
Yeah. Rewriting. Great fun. Be harsh with yourself, do you really really need that line? That scene? There were a couple of scenes in SMB that I knew had to go because they truly weren’t needed but I hung on to them and hung on to them until JLH literally had to pry them from my clenched fists. He was right and never once have I thought about them or missed them whilst watching the movie.
Scott: What is your actual writing process?
Kelly: I have been prescribed a new writing process. It used to be — don’t do anything until it’s nearly deadline time, then panic and write as fast as you can. Now, I am supposed to write 3 hours a day, doesn’t matter which three hours, just three hours whenever. So far I’ve managed to make some really nice dishes from this really good cookbook, gone for some great walks with my dog and I’ve had a manicure. So yeah. I guess I am not a process person.
I write at home.
I sometimes listen to music (I always have a playlist for every film I write), depends on scene.
I am constantly hopped up on caffeine. What is your single best excuse not to write?
I don’t feel like it. I’m no good at it. The dog needs walking. Cake.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Kelly: FADE OUT. That’s what I love most about writing.
Scott: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? In an ideal word, what are you doing?
Kelly: Oh bloody hell! I don’t know! Erm…raising llamas on a farm somewhere? Running a company that gives away free monkeys? Wearing an Elvis jumpsuit all day? All I know is that I hope I’m no longer a virgin.
Scott: Finally what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about the learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?
Kelly: Listen to John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast.
Read a lot then read more.
Write a lot.
Join the Black List.
Make friends with other writers (they’re gonna tell you the truth).
Don’t shag celebrities, producers or directors.
Don’t become a hermit. Ideas don’t come to you when you sit around on your own.
Kelly is repped by WME.