Saturday, September 18, 2010

Writing screenplays, extensions, and seven successes

I've been sitting on this post for a while now. I've had to trim quite a bit out of it to keep it as long as it is, which is too bad. But the data is worth a read, whether you agree with it or not. That being said, a review, then consideration, or what other people have learned about writing is good practice for me.

One of the things I worry about when I'm writing something is adhering to form. Now, this might seem ridiculous to most - but all through my work as an undergraduate, there were basically three things that you HAD to pay attention to - each of equal importance.

1) answer the question being asked
2) adhere to the proper form
3) edit heavily

That being said - any writing of scripts that I've done have been copied from a script of a Sawyer-centric episode of Lost from Season 1 (which is fine). I used the layout from that script t influence how set up the rest of what I was writing.

Anyhow - before a scene there is something called an "Extension" which establishes the setting and time of day of that scene. It's abbreviated and brief, though detailed. In any case - I'm not entirely certain how to do something like this, so here's a reference:

How to write an extension - by Steve's Digicams
Writing Extensions
Extensions are part of a screenplays format. There are instructions that appear one space next to the characters name that tell the reader if a character is speaking in Voice Over (V.O.) or Off Screen (O.S.). Sometimes Off Camera (O.C.) is used instead of Off Screen but it means the same thing.



The lights are off. MARY, 30, is going through a filing cabinet.

JIM (O.S.)

What are you doing here?

Mary turns around to see JIM pointing a gun at her.

Voice Over

Voice over is a technique that allows a narrator to speak to the audience while some action is appearing on screen. When used properly it can connect the audience with a character on a very intimate level as it allows them to hear his thoughts. It's a very powerful tool but a lot of beginning writers tend to use it as a crutch to give exposition to the audience. Instead of a dynamic connection the audience becomes bored.

Most screenwriting gurus claim that you should never use voice over, even though there are tons of great movies that use it. Instead, voice over should be added to the script in a rewrite when the story is solid and the characters are developed. It should be used to add something to the story rather than supporting it.

Off Screen

Off screen is a great tool because it helps you as the writer direct the reader's attention. You can get more dramatic impact when a one characters startles another by surprising them with off screen dialogue. This also helps keep the reader involved with the story. But you should also use these sparingly. Too much off screen dialogue can get a little annoying, especially in a visual medium.

Thanks, Steve's Digicam. This all sounds good to me - I've been on sets before where we joked about different types of shots that can be established with the Extension, like: FBTL (From between the legs) or BHBS (Beside his ball sac) or FIHU (From inside his urethra). Gay, I know.

Steve's Digicam also says:

Study Screenplays
Screenwriting is a difficult craft to master, but anyone can try their hand in it. All you need to invest is time. Watch great movies and study how the story unfolds. Then go online and look for the screenplays. You can find a lot of free screenplays to read over the internet. Immerse yourself in screenwriting. Once you get the hang of it start writing your own work.
- this is sort of what I recommend. Obviously you'd prefer to have a textbook or reference guide that outlines exactly what to do, and then you could use other screenplays or scripts as examples of the theory in practice, or what Paulo Freire called Praxis [granted, Freire was more interested in pedagogy than screenwriting, no doubt.]
Give Your Script the Proper Formatting
Screenwriting is a lot different then other forms of writing. The most noticeable difference is the amount of white space that exists on a screenplay's page. There is a universal industry format that screenplays must adhere to. As a screenwriter you need to adhere to these rules. The market is over saturated with screenplays because anyone with a word processor can read them. You could have written the most brilliant screenplay ever but if it's not properly format then the guy with ten scripts to read isn't even going to look at yours because to him it screams amateur. So follow the proper format.
- hell yeah! This is exactly what I'm saying. You absolutely require the proper format for whatever it is you're doing. This is tremendously important whether it's in sports (called "form") or in business, banking, and of course writing. You need to use the right form or else you're just not committed to that particular craft.

The rules to writing a screenplay
Susan Dunne at has a great post about what rules to follow while writing a screenplay.

To hear Peter Fox tell it, there are five essential conflicts in life:

1. A problem of conscience.

2. It ain't fair.

3. Man against the mountain.

4. Life or death.

5. Stand and deliver.

"You need to have at least one of those as the root of the conflict," Fox says. "Some movies have all five of them. It's rare, but some movies do."

Fox, vice president of production at Tripeg Studios, a film production company based in Hamden, wants to spread his savvy to up-and-coming film writers. He is one of the teachers Saturday at Bushnell Filmmakers' Forum, which unites people who have "made it" in the industry with people who hope to make it.

Q: Define "A problem of conscience."

A: When a choice has to be made between furthering one's own desires or sacrificing those desires to help people at home or people that you love, such as, "Do I take the job in Los Angeles or stay here to raise my kid?" For example, "Dr. Zhivago" had to choose between his wife and his one true love.

Q: Define "It ain't fair."

A: In "The Verdict," we find [Paul] Newman's character discovering that an attending physician had doctored the document to make it look like the woman had eaten nine hours before the surgery, not one hour before. That's not fair. The family of the victim had been railroaded up to that point. That's not fair. … Through the character's actions … a solution will recreate balance in his universe and get him back to a state of well-being.

Q: Define "Man against the mountain."

A: When a character faces insurmountable odds from something that has to be overcome physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually, a situation that looks absolutely hopeless with no chance of success. For example, "Norma Rae" — the lead character is a perfect "woman against the mountain." She works in a mill and the odds for getting a union are absolutely hopeless. Through her character's actions, the solution comes.

Q: Define "Life or death."

A: That's straightforward. It's also called "fight or flight." A character's actions will determine whether the character or people around the character live or die. As an example, "Midnight Express," where the kid was busted with hashish in Turkey. It was very plausible he would be killed by these ruffians in prison. Or "Platoon," that's life or death.

Q: Define "Stand and deliver."

A: You see this in a courtroom type of setting, or where a person has to present their case. … "Working Girl" used the stand and deliver principle with that scene in the elevator where she has one minute to convince [a client] that she has the smarts to make an improvement in his company. She does this under threat of being fired by her immediate supervisor.

Q: How does "Rocky" have all five?

A: It has the "problem of conscience" when the question is posed to [Rocky] if he was interested in fighting Apollo Creed. He doesn't answer it right away … then he answers no. He is asked why, and Rocky says "I'm strictly a ham-and-egger and Creed is the best in the world. It wouldn't be much of a fight." "It ain't fair" happens because [the fight] is a publicity stunt. Creed is using him … the plan is to humiliate Rocky in the ring. "Man against the mountain" happens because the story is "Bambi vs. Godzilla," a ham-and-egg club fighter against the greatest in the world. "Life or death" is not a literal life or death, but if he doesn't go the distance, it will be a spiritual death for Rocky. "Stand and deliver" happens when he has to go there and prove to the world and himself that he's not just a bum. All of the subplots and characters receive deliverance from Rocky when he makes it through that 15th round."

Screenwriting getting serious - you want it? Are you willing to answer these seven questions?

7 Steps to Screenwriting Success

by Izzy Frost on August 8, 2010

Script Tip #4 – Seven Steps to Screenwriting Success
In order to succeed in Hollywood as a screenwriter, you should seriously consider the following Seven Steps to Screenwriting Success…
1. Keep The Seat of Your Pants to the Seat of the Chair.

If you want to write a screenplay, you need to write! You must ‘plunk’ your ass in a chair in front of your word processer [sic] and write. If you don’t already have a writing regimen, you need to start one now. Start with 15 minutes a day. If that’s comfortable, keep on increasing your writing time until you have reached your max potential, and keep it there!It is the regularity that will produce work for you – not the duration!

It’s better to write for 15 minutes a day, then to write for 3 hours each Saturday. It’s the regularity that will do the job. Don’t wait for for the muse or inspiration to strike before you start to write, that’s not going to happen. But, if you faithfully stick to your writing schedule, your muse will show up much more often than if you write irratically [sic]. Every single day you must write. Seclude yourself and work only on your screenplay. (That means no web surfing, no game playing, no IMs. Only writing!) This will exercise your left brain and your creativity will flow much easier.

2. Watch Every Major Release That Comes Out of Hollywood.

You need to watch every single major release that comes out of Hollywood, and watch the good ones twice. Because it’s the second viewing that will enable you to analyze the movie using the principles of screenwriting that you learn.

The first viewing will be emotional. You can lose yourself in the fantasy and excitement of the film. You watch it for the sheer joy of entertainment. Then, the second viewing will be done from an intellectual viewpoint.

Make it your goal to watch one movie a week in a theatre, and at least one video a week. If you can afford it, Netflix Online or Blockbuster Online are both wonderful memberships for screenwriters. They will keep the movies coming to your door on a regular basis.

You can no longer view movies as something you do on Saturday nights, or as something that you need company to do. It’s better to do it by yourself. You will be into the movie more.

This is your career! You have to see examples of the principles you are learning so you can internalize them and incorporate them into your script.

- I think this is bull-shit. If you've got a cool idea, go for it. I can't imagine that you have to inundate yourself with the competition to be able to compete.

3. You Have Got To Read Screenplays

Read screenplays for recent Hollywood releases in the market that you are pursuing. You will learn much more about script writing styles than you can ever learn from a class or a book.

You will learn what concise, simple writing is. How to go back and forth between action and dialogue. You will learn how to create a vivid story in the mind of the person who reads your script.

- It can't hurt. Maybe if you were doing this 24-7 these tips are more important. But I think you'd be spending more time watching every movie and reading every screenplay than actually working. Plus, how many of these movies are all that great? Why would you want to internalize the middle-ground when you should be aspiring for the best?

4. Join A Writer’s Group
Writer’s groups are very advantageous. They can lead you to scripts to read. Some of them even have script libraries. They are also a great source for critiques of the scripts you are writing. You can get feed back on your ideas and writing by letting others read your scripts. And, you can learn techniques and downfalls of script writing by reading and analyzing other people’s scripts.

Not to mention that you may meet some very interesting people who share your love for writing. You might even meet a ‘connection’ who can get your script read. Stranger things have happened.

My two favorite Screenwriter Workshop are, Zoetrope and MoviePoet Once you read and critique screenplays, you can submit your own scripts for critique.

- Or you may have to START a writers' group. These things are probably easier when you're in a major city than if you're way out in a little town. Might have to travel to the city, maybe?

5. Educate Yourself on Screenwriting

You need to take classes, attend seminars and read books by professional screenwriters. I would suggest starting with screenwriters who are big in the business like Michael Hauge, Syd Field, David Freeman, John Truby, Blake Snyder, Linda Seger, and Robert McKee to start with. But, don’t become a professional screenwriting student or you’ll never get a script written.

Like I said in an earlier post, take a class or seminar and and then write a complete script with the new techniques you’ve learned. Once you have written that script, or at least a draft for your screenplay, you can reward yourself with a new class or seminar.

Balance is the key! You must balance your learning with your writing!!

- Yeah, you've got to learn about the craft, that's for sure.

6. You Must Educate Yourself About the Hollywood Market.
You have got to be familiar with what’s going on in Hollywood!!
You need to know:

Who are the producers who are making movies?
What stories are in vogue right now?
What’s getting produced?
The best way to learn what’s going on in the business is to read publications on the subject. The publication I like the best is Premiere magazine Online. Other excellent resources are Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and The L.A. Times.

- fair enough.

7. Ask Yourself; ‘Am I Getting Joy From Writing Screenplays?’

If you’re not getting joy from the writing process, find another game to play. Life is to short to spend doing something just for the fact of gaining a reward down the road – a reward that you probably won’t achieve anyway if you don’t really love writing. If your heart is not into it.

It is the writing itself that must bring you joy. If you aren’t getting feelings of satisfaction from creating characters; or developing stories; or letting those characters emerge from your creativity; or digging in and finding what their inner conflicts are; or imagining how that will look on the screen; or those things into something that would be a movie. If those things, in and of themselves, are not bringing you satisfaction, then don’t do it. Find some other pursuit that will bring you joy.

But, if you are getting satisfaction from the process, then go for it. You can’t lose. Sooner or later you will suceed [sic]. You will suceed [sic] because you have either sold a script and are making a living, or you will suceed [sic] because you can look back at all of the satisfaction you got from the writing.

If you decide that screenwriting is what you want to do and what you love doing, regardless of what other people think you must stand up for your gift. You must work hard using the steps I’ve listed above. Then, you can offer your gift to the world.

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