Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tips for writing a screenplay

Writing a good screenplay is an art - but also a craft

Here are some thoughts from Danny Rubin on the matter.

10 steps to writing a screenplay
1)Write what you know.

Anyone can write about anything! Fact! The key is in-depth research about the story-worlds and subjects you are writing about.

When I was developing Lefevre's Redemption, this particular tid-bit jumped out at me. I was going to set it in New York City (because it's popular and everyone could relate to it) but I simply didn't know anything about it. I didn't have a feel for the city. I didn't know the places, the good parts and the bad parts. It was completely foreign. Thus - I asked myself, "what do I know?" And so it was set in Windsor. This led to the availability of a LOT more options for me, because I knew so much more about it. Good advice.

2)Write what you feel most passionate about.
This sounds obvious, but it’s a crucial aspect that needs to be considered when you choose the subject of your next script. Some writers have many ideas, constantly come up with new ones. They feel very excited about them for a while but when it gets down to the nitty gritty of the writing and re-writing process they lose interest. And of course they have a seemingly good excuse: They have had a new idea! Writing a good script takes a long time. So you’ll need to be so passionate about your idea that you will commit your time happily to it.

If you believe in it, follow it through and don’t let yourself being side-tracked. But at all means collect new ideas (see point 5).

Well, am I particularly passionate about crime dramas? Not really - but I was passionate about telling the story that I wanted to tell. The time-traveller who cathartically causes what he sets out to prevent was a major ambition of mine. When the time-travel became too awkward and weird for the book (which, let's admit it! time travel is always weird and awkward) I cut it out. But the first draft of the novel was definitely inspired by something I was definitely passionate about.

3)Writers write.
Develop a working structure that enables you to do a certain amount of work every day. It’s not the quantity, and not even the quality that matters. First of all, you need to get into the rhythm of writing every day. Re-writing will give your script the quality it needs.

This is a great point - and one I have struggled with. Over the past two months, with a regular start time at a job (that I hated) I was able to punch out an hour or 20 minutes every morning while I had the story ready to go. Just writing is a big, big part of the story. Even though just writing means you skip some things - which I admit - it makes the rewrite all the more important! But don't be a perfectionist - just get the ideas on the page - you can sculpt them later.

4)Develop a portfolio.
Collect several poignant ideas you want to develop in the future. It makes sense to write them down in premise or synopsis form first and develop them into treatments and drafts when you’ve got the time to dedicate yourself to them.

Yeah, I've got something like this. I wouldn't call it a "portfolio" but I have a list of working ideas that I'd love to get to some day. One is my hilarious experience with an oversight board that was installed - and all the problems that went along with it. I am planning to make it a play, and also a comedy. It was such a fiasco that you'd have to see it to believe it. I've got a few cool ideas, but most of them probably work out to be short stories or little skits - I'm not sure how interested I am in jumping into another 150+ page novel right now.

5)Dramatise [sic] exposition.
Exposition is the necessary evil of screenwriting. Dramatise [sic] it and convert it into ammunition. Or make it funny. Or both!

What this means is, if you have to have a character explaining why something happens (like Dan Brown does in all his DaVinici novels) then you'd better make that moment of exposition exciting. He'll usually divide scenes of exposition with foot chases, car chases, fake-drowning liquid oxygen tanks, and things like that. Or, put jokes in it, that's a good idea, too.

6)Don’t make life easy for the protagonist.
Story progression means conflict!

Yes, you don't have much of a story if you don't have conflict. This really shouldn't be a bullet point, but ... maybe it is? If you have no idea what you're doing, then this should really be the first most important thing. A protagonist has a problem, and that stands in his way of achieving his goal. The problem is important.

7)Develop multi-dimensional characters.
No human being is simple. Neither are the characters in a film.

And don't just do this because we say so; this is so that people can identify with your character. If they have some sort of back story, then people can know about them, and if that back story influences how they act now, that helps people think that they can predict or expect certain things from your character. This helps with empathy. But then, twist it up a bit - have the character do something a little different and unpredictable - which shows that they're more complicated and deep than you'd expect.

8)Don’t write dialogue that is on the nose.
Write natural dialogue that is appropriate to your story, characters and genre.

This is definitely a tough part of the book - because lousy or awkward or over-used dialogue can stick out and ruin your story and flow. I may have to look more into this - does each character have a unique voice? Do they all sound the same? Can you tell one from the other? If you were to show a line of dialogue to someone else, could they tell which character (or what type of character) said it? A tough challenge.

9)Writing is re-writing!
Picture this: Your first draft is the impressive rock of stone you have managed to carry into your workshop. But now you need to expose the detailed shape of the rock which inspired you to pick it up in the first place. Layer by layer, draft by draft, your carving the sculpture free from the unnecessary shell of rock that is covering it up.

It sure is. You have to go back and make sure that everything flows together. The word Cohesion is very important between characters, plot, narrative, back stories, scenes and even paragraphs. And you have to make sure you're happy with it all. Gotta go back and see what you think.

10)Seek feedback and criticism without ever losing your own vision.
Being able to analyse your own work is a vital skill that can be trained by communicating with other writers, script editors, directors, actors, producers etc. If you can detect the aspects of your script that need to be more developed and improved, you will be able to cope with negative feedback.

Now, on this front, I often want my story to be a surprise - I don't want people to know what it's all about before they read it. A good story should have something unexpected - I know when my folks read the first little bit of LR that they were expecting something much more funny than what they got. I was too, to be honest. That's not how it turned out. And I think they were more intrigued by not knowing what was going to come of it, than they were with "that I'd written a book." However, they all agreed that the time travel was bad. We all agree that time travel is bad.

However, this next new story I've been developing is really exciting, and I'm very close to getting it out there for reading - so ... I hope people like it even though there really haven't been any proof-readers for it yet.

Apparently, it would unacceptable to not stress the importance of editing. Though this link almost mentions this step like some people wouldn't think to do it.
Sometimes when you write your funny stuff, the best way is to just write it as it comes and pay no attention to quality. Forget spelling, grammar and everything else but just getting that stuff onto the page. Let it sit for a week without looking at it, then go back and reread it; if it still makes you laugh (or grin) then start editing it for the quality. Tighten it up, rearrange the sequence if you need to and generally make it more readable. Work on the punch lines to see if you can shorten them or make them stronger.
I can agree with this. My experience has been to just write. Get the thoughts out, get the characters on the page, get the work done. It's the editing process where you can take what you already have and make adjustments. These adjustments make sure the scenery is just right, the metaphors and symbols are strong, the characters' voices are unique, and the clarity of the scene is executed with strength. If you narrowed your focus while you were writing and worried about all these details as you were going at it - you'd really struggle to get the work done. This is the flaw of a perfectionist who can't move forward until something is complete.

There's an eraser on the end of the pencil so we can go back and make changes, so no need to be perfect on the first draft.

Your Screenplay Sucks is a blog by the author the book, Your Screenplay Sucks! I guess he has made a career of editing, reviewing, commenting on and destroying screenplays for cash. And he found that most mistakes in screenplays are the same, so wrote a book about his thoughts on the matter. Anyhow - the blog is interesting.

Of note - he says about scene descriptions (which you don't hear a lot about when reading on the subject):
My theory is that you have a tad more room on Page 1 than anywhere else. No paragraphs over 5 lines, as per usual, 3 is better, 2 is swell, but you don’t have to leap into story. Set stuff up a little. Tell us what that craggy industrial wasteland looks like. Give us a bit of mood… But not half a page for an opening image. My usual thought is to read scripts on line and see what they do. Used to be, eons ago, that you had no dialogue on page 1, but that’s long gone.

It’s a bit more leisurely than page 2 – 110, but not a lot. Gee, now I’ve confused you.

1 comment:

Jana said...

Hey Ryan
One of the most important points you make is #10. Seek feedback. But I do always caution my students at to be careful WHO you let influence your writing choices. Not all feedback is created equal - especially amongst the pros!

Cheers - jana /