Archive for May, 2008

The 5 Immutable Laws of Screenwriting
By Danielle Davis

Picture it…

Hollywood 2005. A young, struggling writer has just completed a 120-page screenplay. The writer submits it to an agent. The agent loves it, thinks it’s the greatest piece of movie fiction since “Gone With the Wind.” Excited, the agent sends it to a producer. The producer reads it and is equally riveted. The agent negotiates a deal between the writer and the producer. Result, the writer gets paid a handsome amount, the agent gets commission, the producer gets a blockbuster movie and everyone lives happily every after! So how can this Cinderella story happen to you?

Follow the 5 immutable laws of screenwriting:

Brainstorm

Brainstorming is the art of generating ideas. Both professional and amateur screenwriters use brainstorming techniques to produce fresh, new ideas. These ideas can be for a complete script or for a particular scene or sequence. A brainstorming session can be a solo event or group activity if you have a writing partner or team. It can be conducted simply with pen and paper or more elaborately with brainstorming software. The latter can literally spawn thousands of ideas in a matter of minutes.

Here’s an example of a simple brainstorming session you might conduct on paper or with a computer software program:

You want to write a science fiction movie. Write or type the words “science fiction”. Let’s say “science fiction” triggers the words: robot, monster, outer space, heavenly bodies. You decide to write a screenplay about a “monster” from outer space. Now you need to decide on the type of monster. Repeating the previous step, you generate several possibilities including: gremlin, giant squid and giant insect. You pick “giant squid”.  So far your story is about a giant squid from outer space. Next you brainstorm where the giant squid lands on Earth. Trigger words could be: a river, ocean, lake or an above-ground swimming pool. You like the idea of an “above-ground swimming pool”. Your science fiction screenplay is about a giant squid from outer space that lands in an above-ground swimming pool. Get the idea? Feel free to finish the story, I’d love to see it on the silver screen!

Outline

An outline presents a picture of the main plot points of your screenplay. It’s a way to organize the ideas you developed in your brainstorming session. You get to describe the major events and character interactions of the story. A screenplay may be written without an outline, but the story may not be cohesive. Outlining helps you visualize how the main story and subplot will play out on the big screen. It will also help you see the holes, strengths and weaknesses. Again, screenplay outlining can be a simple pen and paper process or created in a computer program.

Sample outline of our giant squid story:

EXT. BACKYARD SWIMMING POOL — NIGHT

A large, slimy tentacle surfaces from below the water and hangs on the side of pool. Moments later another tentacle surfaces and latches onto the pool, then another, and another until the weight of the tentacles crushes the side. Water gushes onto the lawn.

INT. KITCHEN — NIGHT

A young woman stands at the sink washing dishes. There is an open window in front of her. The sound of the pool wall collapsing and rushing water catches her attention. She leans over the sink to get a better view of the backyard. She runs to the back door.

EXT. BACKYARD — NIGHT

The woman steps onto the patio into calf-deep pool water. She walks slowly through the water toward the crushed pool wall. Suddenly, a large tentacle wraps itself around her ankle. The woman looks down and screams for help.

Story Development

Story development is essentially structure. It’s how your screenplay builds from beginning to middle to end. Let’s look at each. The beginning provides the audience with basic information or exposition. It reveals the who, what, when, where, why and how. Using the giant squid story as an example, the beginning must show audiences where this creature came from, why it landed in a backyard pool, how it landed on earth in the first place and so on. The middle of the screenplay is the confrontation stage. This is where our giant squid encounters problems and obstacles. Finally, we move to the ending. How is the story resolved? What happens to the giant squid? Does it get destroyed? Return to outer space? Find its soul mate in the Pacific Ocean?

Character Development

Every screenwriter dreams of creating memorable characters but not every screenwriter is willing to do the work to develop such characters. As creator, you must challenge yourself to look beyond name, age and occupation. You must go deeper and ask, “What are my characters’ wants?”, “What are their needs?”, “What are their motivations?” The answers will produce unforgettable, three-dimensional characters. And yes, even our giant squid can be more engaging if we understand its wants, needs and motivations. Remember E.T.?

Format

A completed screenplay must adhere to industry standards. If it does not, your script will be flagged as “amateurish” and may not get read. Screenplay format is relatively simple and can be accomplished in one of three ways. First, you can purchase a book on formatting and then set your word processing software according to it directives. Next, you can buy a formatting add-on program for your existing word processing software. Lastly, you can buy a stand-alone formatting program like the popular Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft. Whichever method you choose, be sure the final product meets the standard. You don’t want to give anyone an excuse to overlook your script.

Generally, a feature length screenplay is between 100 and 120 pages, uses single spacing for scene descriptions, between the character’s name and dialogue and within the dialogue itself. Double spacing is used between the scene location and description, between the description and character’s name, and between speeches of different characters. For exact tab and margin settings, consult any of the resources above.

The five immutable laws of screenwriting will help you write a screenplay. If you skip any one of the steps, you risk writing a script that may not get produced. Take your time. Explore each step to its fullest extent. If it takes you a day, week, or month to brainstorm an idea, so be it. Stock up on the tools you need to get the job done — a screenwriting software program or book or ream of paper and a box pens. Be patient. Write everyday.

Danielle Davis is the creator of http://www.screenwritertools.com and is currently writing an historical suspense drama. Follow her progress at http://www.screenwritertools.com/WordPress1/

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • NewsVine
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Technorati
  • Live
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace

22 Ways to Improve Your Screenwriting
By Hal Croasmun

Whether you are trying to win contests or sell your script, it is important that you take advantage of every opportunity you can to increase your chances of success.

Some people have estimated the odds of a good screenwriter selling a script to be in the neighborhood of 1 in 5,000.

What if you could cut that in half just by one action?   Now, you’re at 1 in 2,500.

Then, what if you could cut that by 1/5th by taking a series of actions.  Now, you’re at 1 in 500.  And if you continue on that path, sooner or later, you’ll get to 1 in 10 or even 1 in 2.

If you don’t believe that, let me ask you this:  What are the chances of Charlie Kaufman selling another screenplay?

He wrote BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and other screenplays.  Would you say that his chances of selling another screenplay are pretty high?  Would you be shocked to hear that he sold another script in the next six months?  I doubt it.

But if you’d met Charlie Kaufman when he first began writing, wouldn’t you say he was right in there with the 1 in 5,000 odds against him?

My point is this:  Everyone starts at 1 in 5,000 odds and it is up to us to shift the odds until they are in our favor.  Shifting those odds is just a matter of constantly improving and taking advantage of the opportunities that come to us.

Below is 22 ways to improve your screenwriting.  I’ve started with the most obvious and built to some ideas that are out of the ordinary.

I present this list so you will always have a way to improve your screenwriting, even if you are trapped in your room by yourself with no money and no contacts.

1.  Write every day.

2.  Read produced screenplays and search for what they did well.  Read for a contest and see the difference between the winners and the ones that didn’t make it.

3.  Take a screenwriting class.  I can easily recommend a few.

4.  Get feedback on your writing.

5.  Critique another writer’s scripts.

6.  Join a screenwriting group.

7.  Take your favorite screenplay and transcribe it, noticing the choices the writer made.

8.  Select a technique to improve and use it in one or more scenes.

9.  Write the same scene a completely different way.

– Reverse a scene or character

– Increase the stakes

– Change who prevails in the scene

– Use a twist to change the end of the scene

– Put the characters in a worse position

10.  Have another writer write one of your scenes in a completely different way.

11.  Take a character to an extreme to see what other possibilities are available.

12.  Take a line of dialogue or description and rewrite it 10 different ways or more.

13.  Stretch yourself:  Give your character an unsolvable problem and then solve it.

14.  Pick a scene in a movie you like and write it.  Once you have completed it, read the writer’s script for that scene and see how he or she wrote it differently.

15.  Watch a movie, stopping it at the end of each scene.  Write down what happened in the scene, how the characters changed, what was the in and out points, and what was the most interesting part of the scene.

16.  Take your best idea and top it in some way!  Sometimes, it is not about the writing.  It is about the thinking and the breakthroughs and getting used to coming up with fresh ideas.  Force yourself to top your best ideas on a regular basis and soon, you’ll have the best ideas in Hollywood.

17.  Find out what a producer or reader wants in a script.  This can shift your chances dramatically.  It may save you from writing something that has no chance of success.

18.  Take an acting class.

19.  Do a read-through with actors.

20.  Shoot a short on DV.   For anyone who has done this, you’ve had the experience of seeing actors bring your script to life.  Until you do, you can’t imagine the amount of pride and embarrassment you’ll experience.  But directing even one scene will change how you write.

21.  Give yourself permission to write from your heart with no holding back.

22.  Decide that you will constantly improve your writing until you are one of the best screenwriters there is.

There you are.  22 ways to shift the odds of your success.  Many of which do not even require that you leave your computer. If you’re serious about writing, I wouldn’t let a day go by without doing at least one of the above.

A 1% improvement every day is a 365% improvement over the next year.  Keep doing that and sooner or later, you’ll be in Charlie Kaufman’s league — making those 7-figure deals.

Hal Croasmun is a writer/producer and the author of “33 Ways to Break into Hollywood.”   He publishes the ScriptForSale newsletter with articles about screenwriting and interviews with A-List screenwriters at http://www.ScriptForSale.com

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • NewsVine
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Technorati
  • Live
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace

You’re An Idiot: Making Value From Reaction To Your Screenwriting
By Gordy Hoffman

If you’re like me, if someone doesn’t like something about my screenplay, my very first reaction is always the same.

You’re not as smart as me. If you knew what I knew, you would understand what I wrote. And you don’t understand what I wrote, because you don’t know as much as I do. About everything, in general. In short, life. You know, people. Planet Earth.

If you really don’t understand what I’m doing in my script, my first feeling is I don’t respect you. I have contempt for you. I feel attacked personally, and with my feelings hurt, I want to denigrate your position, and while I won’t call you an idiot, basically the foundation of my exchange with you in the wake of you reading my script is you are, in fact, some kind of idiot.

Someone once told me I can be right or I can be happy. Or you can be right, or you can get your screenplay produced into a motion picture. I have had this happen twice, and I can tell you if I had committed myself to being right about everything during the development of the screenplay, they would still be living as files in my hard drive. Any produced screenwriter will attest to this.

Whenever a reader doesn’t get information from my screenplay, facts crucial to the function of the story, stuff I feel is so obvious that the only reason they could’ve missed it all is carelessness, I know I am responsible for the breakdown. Writers over and over complain about this, appalled that someone could miss something so blatant in the script. Two ways you can take this note. One, reader read poorly. Two, you have clarity problems. What is the constructive reaction? You have a clarity problem.

You might get a note saying they don’t believe a character would do or say something, particularly dialogue or actions of a certain time period or profession, such as a cop, or a farmer from the 18th century in Russia. The writer defends the charge by citing historical facts, or stating they have seven relatives in law enforcement, or they grew up in Canada, and they do, indeed, talk like that. Well, it doesn’t matter. If your audience is distracted by your authenticity rubbing them as cliché or improbable, you need to revise. Screen writing is compression and art. It’s truth, not a transcription. Where do clichés come from anyway?

I recently got a reaction from an audience member to a movie I wrote that I had never heard from anyone EVER. My first instinct was to say to myself, well, um, that’s stupid, because EVERYBODY else thinks differently. This is another reaction I’ve run into quite a bit with writers. “Everybody else thinks it’s funny or realistic or a perfect movie or…”
Who is your “everybody else”? Consider your sources, and keep your mind open. In the end, “everybody else” doesn’t exist.

Notes on your screenplay are not a personal attack. They might feel like that. You have made an investment of self, and you love what you have created. It is you. But someone’s reaction to your writing is not a reaction to you. It is a reaction of the person who read your screenplay. Same screenplay, different people, different reactions. So the reactions are personal to the readers. Detach from the notes to the degree to which you can improve your screenplay. Their reactions are formed primarily from their lives, not your words. Which leads me to this.

Do not embrace the extremes. Listen to the ends of the spectrum of opinions, but do not wallow there. If someone thinks your script is the worst attempt at screen writing on record, take what you can, but do not stay with this, toss it off as something off and wild. If someone thinks your script is so awesomely perfect and beautiful that there’s really nothing to be changed, take what you can, but do not stay with this, toss it off as something off and wild.

Let’s say you’ve offended someone. They think your choices about language or characterization or action are patently offensive, maybe immoral, bigoted, racist, or sexist, disturbing to the point of quit. Do you need to change something? Perhaps. It’s up to you. Know that you’ve offended someone. I have written disturbing material and I didn’t change it. But I’ve learned to sincerely respect that reaction and allow it to help strengthen my creative positions.

Do not listen to hysterical advice about formatting, but if people say they found typos, that means you don’t respect your movie and you need look at your attitude to your work on story.

Don’t ever question the credentials of your reader. We can seek the experienced and the professional, but in the end, to discredit notes because the reader is “not a screenwriter” or “some punk in a mailroom” or “the assistant fresh out of blah blah”, I put this to you. Where exactly do you think the studios come from? Do you know where the executives started? Do you know how Hollywood began? Who is sitting in the movie seats every Friday night across the planet? Screenplay consultants? No. Your audience.

Seek their reaction. They are the flashlight that works. You can gleam the most incredible insights from any one who reads your screenplay, if you put aside your fight and remember the goal of production. We can’t wait for the “qualified” to tell us what’s wrong. We don’t have to.

I don’t remember what the newspapers wrote about the movies I’ve written, but I do remember what the audiences said. The hell with right. I want to make movies, and I strive for that direction.

About the Author
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival for LOVE LIZA, Gordy Hoffman has written and directed three digital shorts for Fox Searchlight. He made his feature directorial debut with his script, A COAT OF SNOW, which world premiered at the 2005 Locarno Intl Film Festival. A COAT OF SNOW made its North American Premiere at the Arclight in Hollywood, going on to screen at the Milan Film Festival and the historic George Eastman House. Recently, the movie won the 2006 Domani Vision Award at VisionFest, held at the Tribeca Cinemas in NY. A professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Gordy is the founder and judge of BlueCat Screenplay Competition. Dedicated to develop and celebrate the undiscovered screenwriter, BlueCat provides written script analysis on every script entered. In addition, Gordy acts as a script consultant for screenwriters, offering personalized feedback on their scripts through his consultation service, http://www.screenplaynotes.com

For more articles by Gordy on screen writing, visit http://www.bluecatscreenplay.com

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • NewsVine
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Technorati
  • Live
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace