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THE TOP 40 COMMANDMENTS FOR EFFECTIVE SCREENWRITING

By Craig Kellem


1. If the story doesn't work, then the script won't work. If at any given time, your reader is not wondering, "What's going to happen next?"--you've got a problem.

2. Author Julia Cameron says, "The singular image is what haunts us and becomes art." Think about that! At last "a place" to put all of your little insights, moments of truth, fascinations and unique experiences that previously lacked a "file." If you access that "file" while preparing your script and use these hot little tidbits as springboards for scenes, your script is going to be buzzing with honesty and life. This is what audiences crave.

3. There is no such thing as a throwaway or a transitional scene. Scenes should not only add value to the overall story but should also have intrinsic entertainment value as well.

4. Writing a script is relatively easy. The real work is in preparing, building and "arc-ing" out the story and defining the characters. Once the "blueprint" is in place, the writing itself is usually a welcome enterprise. Many writers have trouble being patient enough with this process and it can cost them dearly in the long run.

5. There are many "techniques" for creating and developing characters some of which are effective. However, the single most important thing you can do is to have a strong emotional connection with your character. Intellectual platitudes and techniques are OK, but audiences want characters who are alive. Find your most visceral emotional connections. Don't settle on a character until you do.

6. The difference between good and great material? SOUL. There are some fabulous technicians out there and some great storytellers too, but the bottom line is the emotional impact of a writer's work. When a screenwriter's vision is razor clear and deeply, exactingly rendered, it can have such impact that you the reader feel changed, personally shifted having experienced their art. GREATNESS HAUNTS.

7 "Who is your hero? What is his/her goal? Who or what is preventing her/him from reaching that goal?" (Intense pressure on your hero in an atmosphere of conflict will help keep your story mobile and entertaining).

8. When I've written screenplays, it always STARTED WITH WHAT I THOUGHT WAS A GREAT IDEA. Something that gnawed and nagged at me and that I felt needed to be expressed. I was savvy enough after a while to realize that sometimes you can have a great idea that has no business being developed as a screenplay, so I knew it was important to take a good long breath before investing myself in an idea that might take me the better part of the year to fully execute. After determining that it was a go, my approach would be to start collecting "hot" ideas for scenes, character elements, moments, character arcs etc. and just put them "on the board" without giving them continuity and form...yet. This process involves the collection of assets without the pressure of having to do anything else than collect them. Inevitably, these ideas would spawn more ideas, which would then spawn a sense of trajectory and order. At some point when the quiver felt full, I would get into more advanced stages of identifying placement over the acts and giving it all a sense of storytelling. I would avoid writing at all costs, letting the passion to do so percolate while I did my critical spade work. Once I had a fully developed game plan; full stories, a real sense of a beginning, middle, end and scenes that could "write themselves, "I'd happily get into the writing process as if it were my wedding night.

9. Surrender to this fact: writing is rewriting.

10. EXPERIMENT: take a couple of pages out of your script. Are your characters distinctive enough that, if you REMOVED THEIR NAMES from the pages, you could tell who they are JUST FROM the dialogue? If not, you need to do more work.

11. Rule of thumb: get into scenes as late as you can and get out early. Forget about the "glad to meet you's" and the "what would you like for dinner's." "How can I start a scene as close to the end as possible?"

12. Before writing anything, you should be able to tell someone the story (and have it worked out so smoothly) that it's practically ready to “write itself.”

13. Planning a script is an act of simplifying rather than the opposite. And above all it's a blueprint for a practical, doable approach to getting something down on paper.

14. When it comes to dialogue, less is better. Pick up the most successful screenplays and you'll notice great economies when it comes to words.

15. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW or about what truly fascinates you. Recognize and take advantage of those areas of experience and interest for which you are the sole proprietor! This will give you an automatic leg up in your writing. However you may inevitably need to shape and dramatize the material in order to make it entertaining for the rest of us. (It doesn't have to be based on 100% of the truth. It's enough that the truth is your inspiration and catalyst). Remember there are certain things that you've been “researching” for your whole life.

16. As you bubble and percolate, AVOID the temptation to write at all costs! Instead, let the DESIRE to write build up as you dabble. Let your energy be expressed in the proliferation of creative nuggets randomly thrown on a page or on index cards. Collect them and give them form but don’t start your script until you’re truly ready.

17. ACCEPT THE FACT that the only writers who get the chance to write without grueling preparation are those who are not getting paid. The typical Hollywood writer has to jump through preparatory hoops before she/he will get the chance to initiate the actual writing of the script. Many pros spend about 70% of their time prepping and 30% writing. Many newcomers do the exact opposite. This is a big mistake. Prep thoroughly.

18. STRUCTURE: Screenplays are big and unruly. You can get lost in their breadth. Three (or four acts, (ie: an act 2 break) help to ground it, make it more bite sized. Additionally, it also gives you at least three moments in the script that are going to be extra climatic (ie: the end of act one; the end of act two (part one); the end of act two (part two) etc. Finally, it gives you something to go for. (For this reason TV movies can be much easier to write than features because they require seven acts (that's six act breaks - plot twisting, climatic, breathless moments to look forward to). Think of each of them as an oasis).

19. STAGE DIRECTIONS ARE OKAY. Someone spread a FALSE rumor that you shouldn't tell directors and actors what to do. Physical actions/gestures/attitudes/reactions etc. described in narrative or parentheses that enhance subtext and cinematic action are called stage directions. Don't hesitate to use the very tool that can help make or break your script.(IE stage directions)

20. The predicate of all successful films, plays and TV episodes is CONFLICT! JEOPARDY, OBSTACLES, AND ANGST will also bode well for you.

21. STORY ARCS (ie: meaning the plot points in any given main story or subplot): Checking them out before writing or revising can produce handsome rewards. Once story arcs are completed, look them over. Look at each story on a microscopic level. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Is it fat or skinny or just right? Is it balanced? Does it have a surprise or two? Does it have a payoff? Has it fulfilled whatever thematic idea you're going for? Can you tell the story to someone clearly, confidently and without their eyes glazing over? Do the scenes work? Is it ready?

22. RESIST the temptation to start marketing your idea to Hollywood before it's ready. C'mon, you don't need an agent yet. Nor do you even need a query letter. The impulse that Hollywood must be alerted must be muted. You must remain in the role of the mad scientist mixing his/her elixir and letting it brew.

23. SELLING a script is a magical experience but the route to success can be unpredictable, mercurial, often maddening and it usually doesn't happen on your timetable. Thus in this effort, ATTITUDE is paramount. Writers are often made or broken in how they handle this effort! If your expectations are too high and your timetable is too ambitious, you're probably going to derail yourself. Agents and producers are important only AFTER the material is READY.

24. SOME MAY THINK, "c'mon, If my script isn't perfect, surely the industry bigwigs will see the potential. Whatever's wrong can be fixed in the rewrite AFTER the big sale." Wrong! The notion that if your material is "almost" there, surely smart professionals will recognize the potential just doesn't happen. Material must be HOT and READY or you're wasting your time!

25. Spend a percentage of your time pushing the material and the majority of the time working on your NEXT SCRIPT. Taking all that wanting and energy and projecting it into the next project is a lot healthier than agonizing over the inevitable frustration of wanting and waiting. Under these conditions, time is on your side. You're dug in for the long haul, the battle will be on your terms.

26. REMEMBER, the business of screenwriting is not a lottery. It's a process. You get better. You develop an inventory of material and ideas. If lucky, you begin to get compliments. You start to experience breakthrus that, at first, only you notice. People start to genuinely like your stuff. You get turned down but someone asks what else you might have. The stakes are raised--you get romanced by the wrong people but it's proof that someone's interested. You almost get a deal. Finally, you may get lucky. The point of critical mass has been reached. It's happening now. This takes time. It can be a circuitous process.

27. APPRECIATE and covet any sign of life (re your writing).

28. KNOW that it's hard for everyone.

29. BE AWARE that people do sell scripts.

30. WITHIN REASON, continue to write from the heart and not for the
marketplace.

31. In life and art we RELY ON ANCHORS, predictable and reliable structures we can hold onto that permit us to relax into an often chaotic and nonsensical reality. Screenplays demand that no matter how avant-garde, experimental or conventional your writing, there be some basic elements that hold us inside of your fantasy.

32. The mind is a funny thing. Sometimes what we perceive to be true is not true. This happens often with screenwriting when writers think that there’s something on the page that isn’t on the page. We must closely examine our manuscripts making sure WHAT’S IN OUR MINDS AND HEARTS HAS ACTUALLY BEEN WRITTEN.

33. There is hardly a situation in any movie, dysfunctional or otherwise, that can’t be justified by some movie somewhere that got away with it. But consider the other 2000 MOVIES IN WHICH IT DIDN’T WORK!

34. Developing ideas is an interesting activity. Two things happen when you do it on a regular basis. One is that your relationship with your subconscious and your “creative guide” gets keener and ideas begin to flow. If you’re lucky, you begin to flow to such an extent that you begin to “WRITE ON THE WALLS.” The other is that as you grow ideas, some take flight as if on their own. This is powerful stuff.

35. If you have to stretch reality, do it judiciously and surround it with a bedrock of credibility and truth in other issues.

36. Succeeding as a screenwriter is a PROCESS. It's less about hitting a home run with the big script and more about doing the next right thing that propels you and your material a step further up the ladder.

37. Although it's natural for writers to do what they do best, it's necessary to also use other methods to accomplish our creative tasks. The humorist may need to access real drama in order to steady his screenplay and give it a realistic foundation. The sci-fi aficionado might be Einsteinian in her imagery but still has to find a way to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. And so forth. The point of this is simple. It’s imperative that you sometimes turn your back on your “A” weaponry and take care of business in areas of craft that may not be your first love. For many writers, particularly those who are not working under the lash of producer or studio, this kind of discipline can be elusive.

38. Have another (nice) way of making a living while you're trying to make it as a writer. This will give you space to grow and create without going nuts. Waiting by the telephone is a prescription for despair.

39. The funniest writers on God’s earth still need a keen sense of reality, relatability, normalcy and even poignancy and drama in their scripts. Is this “rule” ever broken? Sure. But most of the time, the result of these digressions is failure, and often just on a developmental level, since material that’s gratuitously funny and lacks the other needed elements usually ends up on the dust pile. The trick is to create multidimensional situations and amply utilize the honest tragic-comedic human condition as the predicate of things to come. In other words, reality is very much the comedy writer’s friend.

A FINAL NOTE--MIRACLES DO HAPPEN

40. I have witnessed and personally experienced miracles in this business, namely when good things happened for long shot projects and people. I remembered that these good tidings ALWAYS came as a result of a “patron’s” (ie agents and producers etc) pure and infectious belief. And how winning a combination it could be; the supportive individual paired with projects which with a little TLC, seemed to take on lives of their own. Observing otherwise “tough as nails” movers and shakers softening and supporting when their hearts were touched, was always a sight to behold. Passion, the magical ingredient in all of these cases, is surely the decisive factor. And it’s nice to know that it’s still alive and well and making things happen. Stars-to-be, scripts that will find a home, and other worthy product can find warmth in the prospect that after all is said and done, it still can be about deserving talent and material getting caught in the throat and the heart of folks, finding ways to break through. My own personal experience has borne out this truth. Perhaps it has something to do with deep energy which transforms into something tangible. If you believe, like many do, that all things are ultimately created from one’s most passionate beliefs and desires, then maybe “being on fire” has inevitable physical consequences, even in a seemingly impenetrable world.

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