Issue Twenty three
Welcome to the latest edition of the Hollywoodscript.com Newsletter, which is published by script consultants Craig Kellem, Judy Kellem
INSIGHTS FOR 2004
Last year Judy and I initiated our now annual INSIGHTS FOR 2003 (a/k/a--IF YOU NEVER WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT SCREENWRITING AND MARKETING KNOW THIS!). It was very well received and we thought it would be appropriate to update this seminal issue. Its really important fundamental stuff that is derived from our very best writings.
We wish you all happiness and success in our New Year!
*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.
*The criterion for being more creative is not the one I thought it would be --namely someone else's acknowledgment; the town's acknowledgment; the Academy's acknowledgment etc. It was simply about what I was actually doing and how I felt about myself. I HAD BECOME THE THING THAT I WANTED TO BECOME SIMPLY BECAUSE I WAS DOING IT!
*There is a marked, qualitative disparity between stories and images born from REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE and those made from pure, intellectual invention. To the artist who tries to circumvent writing from real, personal experience it has been wisely asked: "How can you try to write for a business of emotions and know that you're going to VEER AWAY FROM REALLY REVEALING YOUR OWN?" We encourage you to DRAW UPON YOUR LIFE and those around you. When something effects you, trust it, save it and when appropriate use it.
*A major reason why access to emotional ammunition is so important is that ALL SCENES NEED TO BE MAXIMIZED. It's not enough to produce a great concept enhanced by a few treasured moments. A winning script is the sum of parts that continuously produces dynamite.
*Big. Small. Scenes are the bread and butter of your mood, your tone and the emotional currency of the story you are telling. So beware and make EVERY SECOND, EVERY FRAME, every line a meaningful experience, a drop of inspiration imbued with integrity, imagination and soul.
*If you aren't one thousand, five hundred percent sure of WHY your movie was a slice of life drama in act one and then turned into an E.T.-style science fiction fantasy flick in act two, DON'T GO THERE. Decide which kind of movie you want to write and stick close to your choice, be consistent and harmonious in the rendering.
*Much of what distinguishes a professional from an amateur script is pacing. NARRATIVE can be the key in this, as fast-flying, lean scripts derive serious momentum from a strong narrative.
*If you have major new characters and situations late in a script, its suggested that you PLANT ORIGINS for this in act 1.
*Most professional writers spend more of their time PLANNING their scripts than writing them.
*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 theres something on the page that isnt on the page. We must closely examine our manuscripts making sure WHATS IN OUR MINDS AND HEARTS HAS ACTUALLY BEEN WRITTEN.
*Good scripts turn on clear strong singular plots that are moved along by well-developed characters and relevant, supportive subplots that ADD to the revealing of the main story WITHOUT IN ANY WAY eclipsing or interfering with its unfolding.
*THE PLOT ALWAYS FALLS APART. WHAT SEPARATES THE WRITERS FROM THE DILETTANTES ARE THOSE WHO STICK IT OUT AND WRITE THROUGH CLEAR TO THE OTHER SIDE.
*Many writers are so anxious to surprise you on page 120 that they employ the dubious technique of telling you the absolute minimum on pages 1-119. Doesnt work. They call it suspense. I call it omission. There is a big difference between the two. There is nothing wrong with teasing the audience and making them want to know more. Nor is there anything faulty with red herrings and scenes that end on a precipice and make you wait. These are tried and true techniques. But youve got to throw your reader a bone here and there SO THAT THE LEVEL OF CONFUSION DOESNT BECOME THE DOMINATING EXPERIENCE IN READING THE SCRIPT. And the bone cannot be buried so deeply that a Geiger counter is needed to detect it. The bottom line is this: If you save everything for the end, you stand a chance of having so alienated the confused reader that, by the time they get to the big disclosure, it no longer matters.
*There is hardly a situation in any movie, dysfunctional or otherwise, that cant be justified by some movie somewhere that got away with it. But consider the other 2000 MOVIES IN WHICH IT DIDNT WORK!
*When the script is beginning to percolate, and your heart is beating hard because you know you're in range, it's often time to have one "LAST" GOOD LOOK and make sure all the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted. Does the script need a few inches more in the department of tightening? Have you maxed out on the big scenes, or would a tweak or two take a double and turn it into a home run? Do all scenes including the "small ones" have their own intrinsic element of magic? Bottom line-can "good" be made even better?
*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 youre 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.
*Regarding receiving SCRIPT NOTES FROM FRIENDS, Id listen to them when theres commonality/trends in the feedback. If you get the same type of "notes" from several people, it may be time to listen.
THREE GOOD ONES FROM BESTSELLING ALLEN RUCKERS ENLIGHTENED INTERVIEW ON COMEDY WRITING
*Writers write, and that includes comedy writers, unfortunately. Like shooting free throws or skiing on one leg, writing is a mind/body activity that demands an enormous commitment to practice. If you don't want to put in the time, become an actor.
*The best piece of advice I ever got about comedy scriptwriting: the story happens in the middle of the room, the comedy happens in the corners. If you take this literally, don't become a comedy writer.
*THE BEST SOURCE OF COMEDY, NO MATTER WHAT THE FORM IS REALITY. Have an awesome respect for reality. Reality is your friend. Most people who call themselves comedy writers, i.e., sitcom writers and whoever comes up with those feel-good "concept" comedies for Eddie Murphy or the like, have lost touch with reality. They make comedies based on other comedies. Don't do this. Reality never gets old. You'll get old, but reality is always a fetching young virgin.
*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.
*The biggest secret going (in my opinion) is that there are some truly OUTSTANDING NON-PRO WRITERS out there just waiting to be discovered. There are many professional writers who would give their eye teeth to have the talent of these undiscovered people.
*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.
*Major turn-ons? Characters and relationships that feel real -- where they are "on the page" -- dialogue that is honest, rings true, where I can hear the voices and feel like I know who these people are, where there is nothing contrived or recycled about the language. Pacing that feels deliberate, where I can trust I'm in the hands of a smart, solid narrator, who's in the driver's seat, taking me on a journey planned with conviction. Action that keeps the script moving, keeps it tight, urgent. Imagery that is clear and metaphoric, like watching poetry -- visual gestures that impress the mind. A script in which subtext and mood have been clearly cultivated so I really feel the material, feel taken on an emotional, visceral experience. That and more turns me on.
*Our view with queries is NOT TO SEND IT LOGLINE/SYNOPSIS STYLE. By formatting it that way it may take away from the REALITY that you're trying to create. You want people to become emotionally affected by your thesis and sucked into the flow. When they're reminded that it's just a pitch via formatting (logline, synopsis style) you may lose a bit of punch. In other words, say it like it's REAL!
THE ORIGINAL INSIGHTS
*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.
*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.
*CHARACTER HEAT. 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 (including the bad guys).
*CREATIVE LICENSE: If you have to stretch reality, do it judiciously and surround it with a bedrock of credibility and truth in other issues.
*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 dont start your script until youre truly ready.
*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.
*WRITERS BLOCK is an irritant, not a sentencing. It may be a gift, believe it or not. Blocks are often a sign from the self to the self that one has reached some sort of turning point. This impasse in writing tells the writer s/he has begun to touch new or unexamined territory, emotionally and story wise, which s/he is not ready to deal with for some reason. It can be a flag that a defining place has been reached in the material (and inside her/himself) and this needs to be addressed. The mind will not allow the fingers to move forward until the creator has stopped and really confronted what truly lies at the heart of the block. A wise and established novelist once warned, "The novel always falls apart. ALWAYS. The trick is not to panic and stop. The real writer writes through it."
*Surrender to this fact: WRITING IS REWRITING.
*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.
*The Two Times a CONCEPT IS IMPORTANT :
The FIRST TIME is when you're developing your idea. You'd be surprised how many well-intended writers come up with a notion, fail to think it out and work their fannies off only to discover that they shouldn't have "begun what they begun."
The OTHER TIME a concept is important is when you've finished the script, dotted the i's crossed the t's and now it's time to send it out. Assuming that the script is great, the veracity of your concept will now make or break you.
*SCENES AS CONCEPTS. Professional writers understand that ALL scenes count. And there is no room for filler or bridges. Each should have its own magic, raison díetre, veracity and power. Adhere and make every second, every frame, every line a meaningful experience, a drop of inspiration imbued with integrity, imagination and soul. Adopting this attitude as the assembly line prerequisite can prevent you from breezing through in order to get to the "big moment."
*LESS is almost always better in screenplays. Writing the "chateaubriand" of a scene is the name of the game, then cut away to the next fillet. Fat is a no no, a bit of gristle should be carefully doled out. WRITE IT TIGHT OR TRIM IT DOWN.
*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).
*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.
*Don't MIX FORMS to "cover" all bases. If you're going to do a movie where people throw pies, then let them throw pies. Save your Oscar winning love scene for another script.
*RULE OF THUMB: get into scenes as late as you can and get out as early as possible. Forget about the "glad to meet you's" and the "what would you like for dinner's."
*If, in the course of a screenplay, Tom Dick and Harry need to be provided with the same info, tell Tom and when we get to Dick and Harry, lets ASSUME that they've been told off camera.
* DONT start with a mystery and end with the hero finding great love. End by solving the mystery.
*STAGE DIRECTIONS ARE OKAY. Someone spread a 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, (i.e. the stage directions).
*"The SINGULAR IMAGE is what haunts us and becomes art," writes Author Julia Cameron.
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.
*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.
*HIDE EXPOSITION (ie: info the audience needs to be told). Spread it around. Keep it as invisible as you can and always try to convert it into ammunition (AKA action).
*SUBTEXT is the name of the game. Potential lovers nervously conversing about train schedules (when you know their real underlying "conversation" is about their aching desire for each other), is usually more compelling and effective than the same twosome spilling every thought in their head.
*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.
*The predicate of all successful films, plays and TV episodes is CONFLICT!
*REMEMBER, its not how long your script is. Its how long it should be. So 115 pages may be OK but not necessarily for YOUR script.
*LAYER SCENES. One of the most effective strategies writers use is to add extra juicy tidbits and mini-subplots WITHIN scenes, while the main story continues to unravel. (ie: a bar scene where two people HAVE to talk could be greatly enhanced by a simple game of killer pool while they say what they have to say).
*Make room for SURPRISES. Audiences love them.
*FIRST AND FOREMOST, 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're in trouble. You can have great characters, it can be funny as hell or dripping with heartfelt pathos, you can create terrific scenes, you can have all the juicy bells and whistles, but, if the story doesn't make sense, if it's off, if it's hard to follow, then the script is not going to work and you're D.O.A.
*WHAT'S A GOOD STORY? There are many definitions. Ours would be, "something that rings true, that's important and is worth telling." It's also has to be ABOUT something. Even the silliest lowball comedy should have a "reason to be."
*WHAT'S A BAD STORY? we heard this definition somewhere-- a bad story is often a "long lie that after a while, even you don't believe." Many inadvertently get lost in a vacuum with their projects, fabricate stuff and end up telling long lies. How do well-intentioned writers end up writing long lies? It usually happens when we don't spent the time doing the spade work, when we haven't thought things through AND WHEN INSTANT GRATIFICATION TO GET THE SCRIPT FINISHED DOMINATES THE PROCESS.
* 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?
*The moment you THROW SOMETHING IN that doesn't belong in your story, solely for the sake of appealing to some imagined reader who you think wants a bit more sex or sentimentality--at that moment, your story dies a little and becomes a little more of a lie.
*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.
*FINISHING a script can be both a thrilling and terrifying time. After all those months of being on the mission, brainstorming, obsessing, getting blocked, breaking through, endless hours--the party's over. Now the fun begins. It's end-game time. At this point, many up and coming writers believe with all their hearts that if they were ONLY able to find the right agent or producer they'd be set. Hollywood would discover what you already know. You've got a winner! The last thing you want is to find out that there's more work to be done. In our experience --there usually is. And it's CRITICAL WORK! So there's one more thing to do BEFORE YOU SHOP IT. Get someone who knows what they're doing to read and evaluate your script. Find out what you've really got.
*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.
*SLOW DOWN. Make sure it's right before you send it out. Life will not pass you by. "It will be there when you get there."
*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!
*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.
*QUERIES--TO DO OR NOT TO DO? Though theres much hubbub that no one reads them and theyre a losers marketing strategy, the truth is material and writers are still discovered via query letters. People read their mail! Try as they might to ignore a communication, they always peek and if it catches their interest, they'll react. Even people in Hollywood can fall in love. A smashing communication is something that few can ignore. But the smashing query is the exception to the rule. You need to become that exception!
*IN WRITING QUERIES, avoid generalizations. Don't be coy-- be specific. Give them a real sense of the CENTER of your idea. These letters are meant to hook them, but good. You need to knock their socks off. Strut your stuff. Your communication needs to be right on target just like a good COMMERCIAL or an effective movie TRAILER.
*Send your query letter EVERYWHERE. Producers, agents, managers, entertainment attorneys, whomever. Blitz it.
*Don't PITCH two or more projects in a query. Producers and agents want the writer to be obsessed with one project and, when more are offered, they can get cynical about a possible preoccupation with marketing.
*The greatest enemy of PITCHING is the notion (often generated in the "how to" culture) is that there is a TECHNIQUE to be learned. Forget about technique. The only rule for good pitching is BEING YOURSELF and COMMUNICATING THE TRUTH. In this regard, all styles are welcome. The enthusiastic artisan on the edge of his/her seat, passionately chatting up their project can be very winning but so can the quiet, stoic-faced waif, earnestly making his/her case.
*Remember the fundamentals of salesmanship. Try to enjoy the experience. Make contact with people in the room. Listen when they speak. REMEMBER (ALTHOUGH IT MAY NOT SEEM THAT WAY), YOU NEED THE GIG BUT THEY NEED THE MATERIAL, THAT'S WHY THEY ARE THERE. YOU HAVE SOMETHING OF VALUE TO OFFER!
*It's IRONIC that many of the principles of pitching are similar to the principles of writing itself. Contrived, formulaic writing is as boring as contrived, formulaic pitching. On the other hand, spontaneous, bold and "from the gut" writing and pitching has endless potential.
*COVERAGE: Hire someone to create "COVERAGE" for you. "Coverage" is an industry staple, a document whose major function is to describe your project and offer a short review. Agents and producers are used to coverage since it's impossible for them to read the inevitable slew of incoming material themselves. They generally rely on people to read it for them and provide a report, a/k/a "coverage." Though COVERAGE from a hungry writer may be suspect, if it's accompanied by a note explaining that its been written by a legitimate practitioner (to whom you sent the script) and this is what you got back, it may have impact. You might tap into their Pavlovian response to a familiar and comfortable format. What the heck, it's worth a shot.
*CONTESTS: Hollywood is always impressed with contest recognition. Check out various screenwriting websites concerning these contests. Pick up some writing magazines as well for this info.
*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.
*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.
*There are very few NOTE SESSIONS in Hollywood or anywhere else that are not fairly extensive. It's just the way it is. Scripts need to be near perfect and that requires attention inch by inch, brick by brick and piece by piece. It can be an unruly process. Professional writers know this and they take the long note sessions with a grain of salt. And in approaching the revision, they use this "trick"- they take it A DAY AT A TIME AND A PIECE AT A TIME!
*OPINIONS from friends are okay, but the truth is that few nonprofessionals really know how to evaluate and materially improve a script. They think they do, but they don't. Friends will usually end up telling you what you want to hear. Or worse, give broad sweeping comments with no palpable solutions ("I Loved this. I hated that. Why? I don't know, just cause" type "feedback"). FIND OBJECTIVE HELP.
*FEAR OF SIMILARITY of ideas? Sooth yourself with this:
1. After all is said and done, they usually aren't all that similar.
2. If the other "guy's" movie stinks it will disappear.
3. If the other movie is a gem, people will want to "imitate" it thus creating a possible market for you
4. If both projects are very much alike and theirs is getting a lot of heat, lay low for a while--it will soon be off the radar screen. FEAR NOT, "we're all really telling the same stories over and over and over again..we just have our own voice to bring to the table."
*APPRECIATE and covet any sign of life (re your writing).
*KNOW that it's hard for everyone.
*BE AWARE that people do sell scripts.
*WITHIN REASON, continue to write from the heart and not for the
FROM OUR GOOD BUDDY
Stuck in inflexible screenplay structures? You need the "Shaping Force!" The discovery of author and screenwriter Skip Press, the Shaping Force is found mid Act One in hit movies. It can be a mentor (Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars), a villain (Alan Rickman in Die Hard), a Hitchcock "Macguffin" that everyone wants (like The Maltese Falcon), or even a concept that the movie is about (Time in Cast Away). This story spine aligner is part of a course now taught in almost 800 schools. Danger! Using it might liberate your screenwriting! See http://www.skippress.com or http://www.screenwritingcourse.com/discount for more details.
SCRIPTBLASTER has an incredibly vast data base of producers, agents, managers and the like. They can zap your coverage or query directly into the hands of many viable Hollywood producers, agents, managers etc. A unique feature is that the emails will be generated from your own personal email so industry professionals will respond directly to you. (http://www.scriptblaster.com)
If you want to find out more about Hollywoodscript.com and the work we do with screenwriters and their scripts, please
visit our site at http://www.hollywoodscript.com
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