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The Screenwryter's Toolbox

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Arnold Wryter is an award winning screenwriter, right’s activist, and astrology denier. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Arnold dreamed of a career in Hollywood that would allow him to visit home only for major holidays and the occasional funeral.

 

At the age of 15, a tragic car accident left Arnold in a full-body cast. Arnold found himself with no one to speak to outside of the three people in his hospital room who he had struck with his car. In order to pass the time, Arnold set out to write his first feature length screenplay by typing only with his nose. The script based on the traumatic events, titled “casr accvidnt”, inspired Arnold to take his career to the next level: the city of Angels.

 

Arnold moved to Los Angeles in the perpetual summer of 1992. He was inspired to write The Screenwryter’s Toolbox after a night in the valley without air conditioning resulted in a vivid fever dream featuring Tom Hanks and Danny Bonaduce. The first draft manuscript sparked a bidding war between publishers which was eventually won by famed publishing house “Self.”

 

 

AWARDS AND ACCOLADES

 

San Fernando Valley Screenwriter’s Award – Winner

 

KAWL Festival – Finalist

 

South Dakota Screenwriter Union Festival – Award

 

West Los Angeles Filmmaker’s Association – Jury Prize Winner

 

Script-rocket Career Launch Blast-off Teleplay Contest – Finalist

 

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

Introduction 3

 

Section 1: Basics of Screenwriting

 

What is a Screenplay? 6

Inadequacies of the Screenplay 8

The Greats 11

Reader of Your Screenplay 12

Importance of Screenwriting 17

Sluglines 19

Action Description 22

Dialogue 25

Parentheticals 35

Transitions 37

Sound Effects 39

 

Section 2: Master Level Screenwryting

 

Main Character 43

Character Arc 46

Hooking the Reader 49

Inciting Incident 51

Structure 53

Pacing 56

Stakes 58

Rising Action 60

Rules of the World 62

Themes 64

High Concept 66

Cliché 68

The Power of Mystery 70

Editing 72

Self-Criticism 74

Brand 75

Premise Generation 78

Writing the Fantasy 80

Contests 82

Conclusion 85

Writing Exercises 90

INTRODUCTION

 

The screenwriting market contains hundreds of guides to screenwriting written by a variety of authors. From industry professionals unsure if they’ll ever sell another screenplay to film school professors looking to make some extra cash by forcing students to buy their book. Some authors even brand themselves as “screenwriting gurus” seemingly capable of improving everyone’s scripts except their own.

 

These authors promise to teach their readers how to write screenplays, pitch concepts, have fun, make money, save cats, etc… Some even take their circus act on the road, speaking at screenwriting conventions and seminars and doing their best not to sound too desperate when they lean into the microphone to say “…and I’ll be selling books right outside.”

 

So what makes this screenwriting guide special?

 

The answer is simple: this book is designed for the top 1% of screenwriters. The screenwriters looking to elevate their craft to the master level. This is a screenwriting book written for screenwriters.

 

I imagine this will alienate some readers. Perhaps you’ve purchased this screenwriting book because you’re looking for a new hobby. Don’t waste your time.

 

Maybe you just saw an action movie and thought: “hell, I could write that.” You are wasting your time. Maybe you’ve taken to screenwriting because you’re pushing past middle age and desperately searching for a mental exercise that will prevent the inevitable onset of dementia. Put this book down.

 

This is not a book for amateurs. This is a book for experts looking to become masters. The screenwriting techniques presented here are not meant for the banal middle-American philistine trying to make a quick buck or the soon-to-be geriatric vegetable grasping at the straws of mental awareness.

 

This book is for the screenwriter already deep in the game.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If your office isn’t the Starbucks closest to your studio apartment, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If you’ve never brought a desktop computer to that Starbucks, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If the manager of that Starbucks has never said “sir you need to buy something in order to use the wi-fi here” don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If your friends and family have never hosted an intervention and pleaded with you to find some stability, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If the air mattress you sleep on was purchased at a store other than Goodwill, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If you’ve never done an elevator pitch at a urinal, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If you have hopes of starting a family one day or winning back custody of your children, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If you’ve never post dated a rent check, don’t waste your time.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. If you’ve never been escorted out of a screenwriting seminar for arguing with a panelist, don’t waste your time.

 

For those of you just now realizing this book is not for you, I apologize for the confusion as well as the no-refund policy. I recommend a more accessible book to start your screenwriting spiral. A book that will allow you to learn the world of screenwriting without destroying your home life. AKA: A child’s screenwriting book. Break out the printer paper and crayons and get to work on that one great story you’ve been meaning to tell. You know which story I’m talking about. The one that would probably work better as a novel but why write 400 pages single spaced when a screenplay is only 100 and the standard font is Courier.

 

Now that we’ve gotten rid of the poser screenwriters, let me take you real screenwriters on a journey. A journey to the master level of screenwriting craft. The techniques in this book are for you. They separate the good from the great; the unproduced from the produced.

 

Well maybe not the second part. Don’t get your hopes up.

PART I

 

 

 

BASICS OF SCREENWRITING

 

 

WHAT IS A SCREENPLAY?

 

Just like a painter must know the history of painting and a historian must know the history of history, all screenwriters should know the origins of screenwriting.

 

So where does screenwriting and storytelling come from? Why are scripts used? Who invented them? Were they invented by Mister Script? Is there a Mrs. Script? How are they doing?

 

The invention of storytelling dates back to just after the dawn of man. Before scripts were used, stories were organized purely with visual storyboards called “cave paintings.”

 

Many of these stories involved violence and fertility. Even then, they understood the marketplace.

 

 

Above you can see the cave painting that Kevin Costner rebooted into Dances With Wolves. In true Hollywood fashion, the original writer received no compensation for their work.

 

Once written language was invented, however, mankind needed a more sophisticated way to organize visual storytelling. And with that, the script was born.

 

Without cameras, there was no “screen” for screenplays to be written for. Instead, scripts were used for stage plays, sometimes called “plays.” A number of playwrights became famous for writing these, from Shakespeare to others who I’m sure existed.

 

Thankfully, these ancient Shakespeare documents have since been adapted to the screen so audiences are still able to experience them.

 

SIDE NOTE: They have not aged well.

 

Once the camera started being used to document stories, it was natural that written words should be used to organize these films. And thus the screenplay was born!

 

Silent movies date back to the early 20th century and utilized title cards in place of dialogue. Let’s take a look at a popular film from this era:

 

The title cards were an unsophisticated storytelling technique that slowed down the story however they were still the most suitable way to convey the comedic racism of the time.

 

When movies started using sounds, dialogue was brought into the screenplay and ever since, the screenplay has pushed forward into the present where it is used in the creation of virtually every film.

 

From low key, dialogue heavy indie bore-fests to blockbuster action-adventures, screenplays boil down what is on the screen into a couple of sentences and sell for millions of dollars.

 

 

 

 

INADEQUACIES OF A SCREENPLAY

 

A screenplay’s job is to sum up what is being seen on-screen into a few sentences. Which begs the question: How can this accomplished?

 

It cannot.

 

Think about the last superhero movie you saw. Your favorite superhero was throwing punches as lasers flew past him and the love interest yelled out his name. Even the most mediocre creative writing student could spend three pages just describing the sweat pouring down his forehead.

 

So how can screenwriters possibly be expected to create a comprehensive visual in the reader’s mind with only a couple dozen words? If your answer to this question was “use more contractions,” please close the book and return it to whatever piece of wobbly furniture you found it under.

 

Let’s do some math.

 

A screenplay has roughly 175 words on each page. The average script is about 100 pages. This means the average screenplay is roughly 17,500 words.

 

And how many words does it take to create a movie? If a picture is worth a thousand words and there are 24 frames per second…

 

Your typical two hour movie requires 172,800,000 words, coming out to about 987,428 pages of script.

 

Now despite being a vocal proponent of the million page script myself, it is simply not realistic in today’s fast paced marketplace.

 

So how do you solve this problem?

 

The first step is coming to terms with the fact that your script is not sufficient to convey the movie you are writing. It doesn’t matter how good you are with words, you do not have enough of them.

 

But if your script isn’t going to be the movie you are writing what is it going to be?

 

It’s going to be a rough outline of the movie.

 

It’s not an oil painting, it’s a sketch.

 

And this is great! Because sketches are way easier than oil paintings and take a fraction of the time.

 

Remember that you are not selling a movie, you are selling a screenplay. You are selling a promise of the movie to come.

 

Think of a completed movie as an oil painting of a beautiful naked woman. A screenplay is a pencil sketch of an androgynous humanoid creature with a note attached that says “we’ll fix it in post.”

 

Selling a screenplay is like selling a house with a pool. Convince a rich couple how much fun they’ll have throwing parties and let them deal with the reality of cleaning dead squirrels out of the filter.

 

Selling a screenplay is suggesting your friend date a nurse because the ones in the Halloween costumes are sexy.

 

Selling a screenplay is inviting your friend and his ugly girlfriend to a beautiful, sunny day at the beach and letting them worry about finding parking.

 

Selling a screenplay is like selling a home theater system to an elderly man. In theory it sounds great but in reality he will never figure out how to work the remote.

 

These examples are important because they highlight an important aspect of screenwriting: selling.

 

As a screenwriter hoping to no longer wait in line at a food pantry, you need your screenplay to be sold. That makes your screenplay a sales document. And just like that successful marketing consultant you spoke to at your high school reunion, you are a salesman. The only real difference is you do your work in your pajamas and he can afford to go to the dentist.

 

And just because this sales document you’ve created will be turned into an enjoyable piece of entertainment doesn’t change the fact that you are a salesman creating a sales document.

 

Most screenwriting books overlook this because it defines screenwriting as something other than artistic expression. Screenwriting gurus think it is their job to coddle screenwriters rather than giving them practical advice. They focus on a screenplay as “a blueprint of a movie.” It is an interesting analogy that would be more interesting if it was not completely inaccurate.

 

A screenplay cannot be a blueprint for a movie because, as you just learned, a screenplay is not sufficient for conveying a movie. A screenplay’s job is to convey just enough of a movie to convince someone to buy it. Accepting this fact is the first step in the master level creative process.

 

And remember: just as your screenplay cannot live up to the vision of the movie you have in your head, keep in mind that your career is no different. Sure it would be great to be a successful, envied, famous screenwriter but that’s not going to happen. Any brief success you have will likely be book-ended by years of discouragement and rejection.

 

Fantasies are great but reality is cold.

 

Also, love is nothing more than a combination of chemicals in the brain and there’s probably no afterlife.

 

 

THE GREATS

 

Now that realistic expectations have been set for your screenplay, it is important to identify who you should look up to.

 

In order to address this, allow me to pose a question: What makes “the greats” great? What makes the masters of the craft stand out above the rest? Why is Ernest Hemingway a better writer than the schizophrenic homeless man sleeping outside the Burger King?

 

The obvious answer: Who said he is?

 

What criteria does society use to judge skill?

 

Ernest Hemingway is more well known than the homeless man but does that make him better? It makes his publicist better.

 

Most readers would likely agree that Ernest Hemingway’s writing is better than the homeless man’s but that doesn’t mean he’s better. That just means more people think he’s better.

 

And that’s the point. Ernest Hemingway’s work isn’t any better than anyone else’s. His work is simply interpreted as better. That means your goal as a writer is not to create a great piece of literature but to write a piece of literature that others will interpret as great.

 

All that matters in writing is making sure your work is interpreted as good. Everything else is moot.

 

Every script has a batting average. What percentage of readers thinks it is a good script? And your goal as a writer is to increase that batting average.

 

This is the beauty of writing. It is 100% subjective which means no one is better than anyone else. An individual's skill is nothing more than what others perceive it to be.

 

So that homeless man might actually be ten times the writer that Ernest Hemingway is. Or maybe he’s just crazy.

 

And if that’s not comforting as a struggling writer, I don’t know what is.

 

 

THE READER OF YOUR SCREENPLAY

 

Kurt Vonnegut believed that every author had an audience of one in mind, which is another way of saying all authors are insecure and require validation from the person they most respect. Personally I don’t think Kurt took it far enough. Screenwriters are not only insecure, they are cripplingly insecure. They don’t just require validation from one person, they require validation from everyone.

 

It is paramount that you do not let this desperate, pathetic need to be loved consume you. Because, thankfully, screenwriters do not actually need validation from everyone. Screenwriters need validation only from the people who are necessary to get their screenplay purchased.

 

SIDE NOTE: After selling your screenplay, it’s best to wash your hands of the project since the creative machine that is filmmaking will digest your precious screenplay, crap it out, and flush it through the straight-to-DVD sewage system.

 

But who are these people you need to impress to get your screenplay purchased?

 

Well we’ve heard their name mentioned a couple times already. They are called “readers.”

 

While the term “reader” could refer to anyone who reads a screenplay, the term is not to be used that way when discussing screenwriting at the master level. “Reader” refers to the people whose opinions matter. This screenwriting book is aimed at expert level screenwriters. If you still give a shit what Aunt Molly the florist in Wyoming thinks of your work, I suggest you pack up your bags and head to night school.

 

Now that you’ve learned family members are not people you care about, who are these “readers” you DO want to impress? Well there are a few types of them:

 

1. The Intern

 

 

Some readers are interns at production companies, studios, or agencies. These industrious interns are being paid in experience and the occasional pastry.

 

And what is known about this group? Well they’ve agreed to work anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week for no pay. So clearly they aren’t very smart. They’re also at a time in life when they can afford to sacrifice their time and energy pursuing a pipe dream instead of a career. So they’re probably young as well as dumb.

 

These recent film school grads have been in LA for a little over a month but don’t worry because they already know everything. They think The Usual Suspects is a “classic film” and Christopher Nolan invented surround sound. The key to scoring well with this group is to use small words and reference things from the late 90’s.

 

2. The Professional Reader

 

 

Other readers are known as “professional readers” which means they get paid for their work in American currency. These readers read for production companies, screenplay contests, festivals, etc… They are older than group 1 and, since they’ve spent much of their lives reading screenplays, not much smarter. The important thing to remember about this group is that they are EXTREMELY critical.

 

These individuals moved out to Hollywood to become famous screenwriters. Having failed at that, they now speed read screenplays written mostly by group 1.

 

Fair warning: This group is going to take out all of their frustration on you. After all, you had the audacity to pursue the same dream they did and now you’re wasting their time with your terrible screenplay. Just look at your garbage main character whose actions are totally unmotivated. This group could have written the story so much better than you so how dare you have the nerve to submit your script? And now you made a typo. Another typo, are you shitting me? Move back to Kansas with your amateur hour horseshit.

 

It goes without saying that this very sad group is entirely male and sexually frustrated. The key to scoring well with this group is to hope they read your screenplay after chatting with a skinny woman on Plenty of Fish who forgot to ask what they do for a living.

 

3. The Successful People

 

 

The third group of readers are called “successful people.” These are the Hollywood agents, managers, executives, producers, showrunners, staff writers, etc…

 

It’s a waste of time to discuss this group because until you’re one of them they will never read your script.

 

4. The Assistant

 

 

The final group of readers are the assistants. These assistants work for the successful people in group 3. Whenever a successful person offers to read your script what they are saying is “my assistant will read it.”

 

And “my assistant will read it” actually means “my assistant will glance at it.” Group 4 is going to speed read the first seven pages of your screenplay while directing calls, answering emails, organizing trysts with escorts for their boss, and sexting that dude they met at karaoke (and possibly reading another script).

 

Unfortunately, this group will almost never recommend your script because what they did barely qualifies as reading. What they did is closer to turning a page every 30 seconds.

 

The key to understanding this group is to remember that your screenplay is getting in the way of them doing their job.

 

Imagine you are a barista making coffee at a coffee shop (this may not require much imagination). When a screenplay is given to an assistant to read, it is no different than your coffee shop manager coming up to you and saying “hey, while you’re making this cappuccino would you mind learning how to juggle chainsaws? And let me know what you think of the chainsaws so I can pass your ideas off as my own.”

 

With that in mind, impressing Group 4 is about simplicity. Short words, a straightforward plot, and familiar characters. You’ve got a 160 page political thriller with double crosses, ambiguous motives, and a web of lies? Group 4 is way too busy for that shit. Give the main character a relatable goal, three or four good lines of dialogue, and no subplots. And make sure they can describe it as “internationally viable.”

 

Before you hate group 4 for not reading your script, remember that they will rarely insult your script for the same reason they will rarely recommend it: they can’t even remember the main character’s name.

 

So what can you take away from the discussion of readers?

 

As a screenwriter hoping to work at the master level, it is your job to write with the reader in mind. Just as a salesman trying to sell to a tobacco company smokes a pack and yellows his teeth before a big meeting, so should you write to impress these readers.

 

And impressing these readers means creating a screenplay they can enjoy without really reading it. It is your job to tell a story that can be understood and enjoyed enough that the reader recommends the script to his or her boss. At the same time, your script must demonstrate your abilities as a writer, especially if the reader happens to slow down enough to fully process some of the sentences you wrote.

 

Master level screenwriting is a tricky balancing act. You must create a screenplay that appeals to all categories of readers. Your screenplay must be engaging not only to a 20-year-old intern putting up a Craigslist ad for a studio apartment roommate but also a hyper-critical, middle-aged “professional reader” who is responding to that Craigslist ad.

 

And if you’re reading this wondering: “how is it possible to create a screenplay that appeals to such a broad range of readers (who aren’t actually reading my screenplay)?”

 

Well that’s the point of the book. Keep reading the book. If that question could be answered in one sentence I wouldn’t have written a book…

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF SCREENWRITING

 

Before diving into the techniques of master level screenwriting, it is important to take a step back and discuss screenwriting at the meta level. After all, if you are going to continue spending thousands of hours writing screenplays, important questions must be asked:

 

Is this a worthwhile use of time? Is screenwriting a waste of energy? Is it a narcissistic yet soul crushing pursuit?

 

Is it a noble pursuit?

 

Yes. It is not only a noble pursuit but the MOST noble pursuit. Let’s put it into perspective:

 

Mankind has survived millions of years of turmoil: Violence and plague, famine and disease, war and other bad stuff. And mankind has survived as a species because of people’s ability to learn from one another.

 

And how have people learned from one another? Through stories.

 

Humans are instinctual storytellers. Before movies, humans read screenplays often written in the past tense called “novels.” And before that, tales were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Stories are at the heart of the human species. The only known cognizant species in the Universe. In this way, stories can be seen as the very center of the Universe and screenwriters are the molders of that Universe.

 

While this truth seems obvious, there are many who disagree with it. If I may borrow an anecdote from my own life:

 

I have a brother who has chosen not to engage in storytelling. Instead he spends his days as an astrophysicist wasting away his years staring at planets and atoms with no care for screenwriting and the Universe. This could have been my path but I chose the more difficult road. The road of a screenwriter, a molder of the Universe.

 

My days are not spent punching numbers into a screen, ignoring the Universe through the distraction of science. No, my days are spent in creative pursuit of mankind’s soul.

 

And that is why screenwriting is a noble profession. A profession of the gods.

 

Is it more noble than, say, feeding the hungry or curing cancer? Yes.

 

Is it more noble than fighting terrorism and protecting the weak? I just said it was the most noble profession. Go back and re-read the earlier paragraph.

 

Ask yourself this: without stories, would life really be worth living?

 

Of course it wouldn’t.

 

So let the pedants of the world dither about with the poor and cancerous. Let them worry about science, math, and our civilization’s infrastructure. Because the screenwriter’s pursuit is more important regardless of what that screenwriter’s mother’s voicemails might say.

 

The screenwriter’s pursuit is that of the gods: Stories, screenplays, the canvas of mankind’s infinity.

 

SIDE NOTE: Just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it should be shared with strangers at a party.

 

 

 

 

SLUGLINES

 

A screenplay has specific formatting that makes it a screenplay. If you mess up this formatting, nothing else matters. Readers like nothing more than to dismiss a screenplay for poor formatting and end their day an hour early. When opening a new screenplay, all readers know they are two formatting errors and/or three typos away from trashing the script and taking a nap.

 

The first on-the-page element of screenwriting to discuss is the slugline.

 

Sluglines indicate where a scene is taking place. Here are a few examples:

 

INT. KITCHENDAY

 

EXT. PLAYGROUNDNIGHT

 

INT. / EXT. D-E2 INTERSPECIAL TRANSIT CENTERFADING DUSK

 

Each slugline has three parts:

 

The first, as you can see, is the INT or EXT. INT meaning Interior (the scene takes place inside) and EXT meaning Exterior (the scene takes place outside). These abbreviations are left over from 20th century screenwriting before everything took place in front of a green screen.

 

You can also put INT. / EXT. if the scene moves from inside to outside or if it exists in both at the same time. An example of this might be a moving convertible or, as seen above, an interspecial transit center. I recommend using INT. / EXT. at least once in each screenplay to demonstrate you know it is an option and are therefore clearly a professional.

 

Each slugline ends with DAY or NIGHT to specify when the scene takes place.

 

That is, if you’re an amateur. Consider mixing things up and having fun. Above, I used FADING DUSK.

 

Does the scene have to take place in the fading dusk rather than during the day or night? Probably not. Further, what is fading dusk? Doesn’t the word dusk by itself imply that light is fading? Maybe, but fading dusk sounds better. So have fun with words.

 

The middle part of the slugline tells where the scene is taking place. And this brings us to an important truth about sluglines.

 

Studies have shown that readers often skip over sluglines. When readers are burning through your script at 3 pages per minute, the sluglines are the first thing they ignore.

 

This makes sense because in order to comprehend the script enough to tell their boss about it, what should a reader actually read? Well the dialogue is essential. And descriptions of the character actions are sometimes relevant. But does it matter if the scene takes place in the living room or the kitchen? Not so much.

 

With this in mind, it doesn’t matter what you write in the slugline.

 

Hearing this is likely causing some pushback. You may be thinking: “I’m going to write the sluglines because the readers are reading my script in its entirety.”

 

I can assure you they are not. Examples of readers not reading scripts make for great Hollywood stories. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck famously put a gay love scene in Good Will Hunting to test if anyone was actually reading their screenplay. It took months for anyone to notice. Ang Lee tried the same thing with Brokeback Mountain only to find the scenes were more compelling than the conventional cowboy story he originally envisioned.

 

You are writing a screenplay for a reader whose continued employment demands they read your script the very minimum amount necessary to not get fired. To give your script anymore attention than that is a waste of time for your reader. And your goal as a writer is to ensure that as many of these readers as possible (who didn’t read your script) enjoyed reading (not reading) your screenplay.

 

Now, getting back to the task at hand: sluglines.

 

Since readers are ignoring your sluglines, don’t get caught up on using a slugline to indicate where a scene takes place. Instead, simply use sluglines to indicate that the scene has changed.

 

The role of the slugline is to say “hey reader, the scene is changing. I understand if you’re too busy to read where the new scene is taking place but I just thought I’d let you know that it changed.”

 

Doing this prevents the reader from getting confused while they are reading (not reading) your screenplay.

 

For this reason, try to make your sluglines as long as possible. The longer they are, the more capitalized letters there are and the more likely the reader will notice the scene has changed.

 

Some examples:

 

INT. MIDDLE AMERICAN RUSTIC KITCHENDAY

 

That could be shortened to simply “Kitchen” however why not include the extra capital letters?

 

Or maybe…

 

EXT. CONSTRUCTION SITE DD-422B X6 – NIGHT

 

Is it necessary to specify which construction site the scene takes place at? Does DD-422B X6 actually mean anything? Of course not but the bigger the slugline, the more likely the reader will notice the scene has changed.

 

Let’s elevate our discussion of sluglines to the master level:

 

When writing a slugline, try to use the capital letters that take up the most space. The really dense letters.

 

BACKYARD is a personal favorite of mine. Notice how thick those capital A’s are. And how close the D is to the R.

 

Ideally, our sluglines would simply be a series of capital I’s and hashtag signs. It’s going to be difficult for a reader to not notice the scene has changed when they see this on the page:

 

EXT. I##I#III##I#I#I#I#I#I#I#I#I#II#I#I#I#II#I#I#I###I#I# – DAY

 

Unfortunately, this may confuse readers so it is best to use words that are actually words. Like DINING ROOM or GEORGIAN HOUSE. Look at those big, fat, dense letters.

 

Beauty in language.

 

 

ACTION DESCRIPTION

 

Following each slugline is the action description. The action description describes what is being seen on-screen. Does your character walk to the counter to pick up a spoon? There’s an action. How about instead they pick up a knife? Now we’re getting somewhere.

 

Action description is where the real writing happens. Personally, I recommend listening to music while writing. Wearing headphones stops the crazies at the coffee shop from bothering you and sometimes the lyrics use a cool word that may inspire you. Just last week I wrote a sonnet titled “Disco Stick.”

 

Amateur screenwriting books will stress the one big rule of action description: Never write anything that cannot be shown on-screen.

 

This means no character thoughts or inner feelings as they cannot be seen on the screen. And this makes sense because if a screenplay is going to made into a movie it is probably best to not write anything that cannot be seen or heard on-screen, right?

 

Wrong.

 

Remember that the goal of a screenplay is to be sold. You shouldn’t care how your script translates to the screen. That’s the director’s problem. You’ve sold the pages. You’ve cashed the check.

 

Your only job as screenwriters is to write a compelling screenplay that demonstrates your abilities as a screenwriter. Let’s take a look at the beginning of a scene from a screenplay I recently wrote:

 

Wow, that’s how writing is supposed to sound. Thick. Succinct. Quasi-understandable.

 

Other “screenwriting gurus” may ask questions such as: “how is the audience watching your movie going to know what it smells like? Is the audience going to see their spirits forever trapped? Does that last sentence even make sense?”

 

To that I say: Doesn’t matter. It’s not my concern whether it’s possible to show ethereal entities trapped among the corporeal. I don’t even own a camera.

 

To drive the point home, here is what that scene looks like in a “conventional” (“boring”) screenplay where the action description only shows what is seen on-screen:

 

Action description is not meant to describe a location or paint a picture, it is meant to create intrigue using fancy words and phrases.

 

Another important rule of writing action description is to use active verbs. Not passive verbs. And why not passive verbs?

 

Because passive verbs rape screenplays.

 

Notice how I phrased that. I didn’t say “passive verbs are detrimental to screenplays” or “a passive verb is a word lacking in strength.”

 

Passive verbs rape screenplays. Passive verbs dismember interest and gouge out the possibility of positive reviews. A verb devoid of action devours a screenplay. And then rapes it.

 

Some of you may be thinking “woah, slow down” or “they can’t be that bad” or “what’s with all the rape?”

 

Passive verbs sedate readers. You’re not writing a lullaby, you’re writing a screenplay. A verb is a sledgehammer aimed at your reader’s head. And you, the writer, are swinging that sledgehammer.

 

Eviscerate. Desecrate. Mutilate. These are verb-sledgehammers you want to be swinging. Not “is” or “are.”

 

SIDE NOTE: You really can’t go wrong with a verb that ends in “ate.”

 

And since verbs are sledgehammers, don’t forget the name of the doctor who fixed your rotator cuff so you can swing these sledgehammers:

 

Dr. Thesaurus.

 

The thesaurus is your best friend. The thesaurus lends you strength. The thesaurus lights the way and leads you when you stray from the path.

 

Let’s look at an example:

 

Now imagine 120 pages of that. Snoozefest. So let’s consult our sage and mentor, Dr. Thesaurus. And from the gospel of Thesaurus, our screenplay reads:

 

I hope I’ve made my point.

 

 

DIALOGUE

 

Most writing teachers will tell you that writing enticing dialogue is not something that can be taught. You either have an ear for dialogue or you don’t. This is, of course, completely untrue.

 

As with anything writing related, it is possible to improve with practice. So do not worry just because using words to convey ideas is an area of writing you struggle with.

 

And the ability to improve as a craftsman is ESPECIALLY true with dialogue because the type of dialogue you are writing is “good” dialogue.

 

The dilettantes of the screenwriting world will recommend honing your ear for dialogue by becoming an observant listener. And this would be a great suggestion if you were trying to write realistic dialogue. You are not. You are writing good dialogue.

 

What is good dialogue? It is dialogue with rhythm and flare and pizzazz and energy and intrigue and a number of other adjectives that in no way describe how human beings speak. In fact it is the very opposite of realistic dialogue. Take your last phone call with your aunt. Was that realistic dialogue? Yes. Would any functioning human being pay $13 to listen to it? Of course not. Many would pay to not have to listen to it.

 

So who writes “good” dialogue?

 

Aaron Sorkin is one example. His technique is fast banter. To capture some of the fast energy of Sorkin, read your character’s dialogue with a metronome ticking at 170 beats per minute. Is the dialogue clear and understandable? If yes, rewrite it with bigger words.

 

Remember: Engaging dialogue is not always meant to be understood. Don’t put too much pressure on the meaning of the words, let the syllables do the work. It’s like jazz. It’s the words you don’t comprehend.

 

Take Quentin Tarantino. Django Unchained was nominated for writing awards before the movie was even released into theaters. That must mean something. For lessons on writing in a voice like Quentin, read his screenplays aloud or pretty much any unproduced screenplay written between the years of 1995 and 2003.

 

Larry David’s work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm proves he is a comedic force to be reckoned with. Consider going to your local deli and finding an elderly Jewish man to argue with. If the bickering feels repetitive, you’re on the right track. When typing out the dialogue, use the Copy/Paste function on your computer to save time typing.

 

These are simply examples of other writers’ styles. As an unestablished screenwriter, it is not always best to veer too heavily into stylistic waters. Which brings us back to the original question: how do you write “good” dialogue?

 

The answer is to write towards conflict. Dialogue is action in the form of words. A line of dialogue is a razor sharp attack. Your character is throwing ninja stars at whoever they are speaking to. Good dialogue is combative, aggressive, emotionally charged. Words are bullets and your character’s mouth is an M16 attached to a uranium bomb.

 

For the sake of argument, let’s look at an example of “realistic” dialogue:

There’s some realistic sounding dialogue.

 

Now let’s inject Claire and Jessica with some conflict…

Which movie would you rather be watching?

 

There is another important rule of dialogue to learn from the above example and in order to address it I will pose this question: What is your favorite movie speech?

 

A great monologue or speech is often what is remembered from a great film. From Patton to Scent of a Woman to Independence Day. So how does that affect aspiring screenwriters?

 

It means you never write speeches.

 

Speeches are remembered from “films.” They have a beautiful actor speaking with conviction that is often complemented by swelling, emotional music in the background.

 

Have you ever read Patton’s speech in text form? Here it is:

 

PATTON: Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war is a lot of horse dung. American’s traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. Now I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating. Now, we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. You know, by God, I actually pit those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards. We’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel. Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken-out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that was a moment before your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do. Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto them by the hose and we’re gonna kick him in the ass. We’re gonna kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re gonna go through him like crap through a goose! Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you ‘what did you do in the great World War II?’ You won’t have to say ‘well I shoveled shit in Louisiana.’ Alright now you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere. That’s all.

 

There it is. Did anyone read the whole thing? I know I didn’t. I copied and pasted it from the internet.

 

Full disclosure: I didn’t even have the patience to proofread it.

 

Now imagine how a reader is going to read your speech. There are going to be no dramatic pauses, no annunciation, no emotion. If you want to get a good idea how it is going to sound in the reader’s head: speed read it, skip every few words, and do it in Dick Cheney’s voice.

 

This is the 21st century. F. Scott Fitzgerald is long dead. Poetry in writing has been replaced with brevity. Get on board.

 

Everything in your screenplay needs to read fast. Fast banter. Fast dialogue. Quick. Short sentences. Like this. Fragments. Easy. No thought.

 

The reader is going to breeze through your fast dialogue and if they manage to finish your script with a few minutes still left on their lunch break, they are going to say it is the best goddamn thing they’ve ever read.

 

However, your characters do occasionally need opportunities to express themselves and say how they feel. In those rare cases, remember the Twitter rule:

 

No speeches over 140 characters.

 

Twitter nailed the attention span of the 21st century. This isn’t Shakespeare’s day when your choice was listen to an actor deliver a soliloquy or go back to shoveling horseshit. Millennials are constantly bombarded with opportunities for entertainment. “Busy” doesn’t mean “I have work,” it means “I have too much entertainment to get to. And I haven’t updated my Instagram in 36 minutes!”

 

So let’s go back to the Patton speech. How can it be adapted to a 21st century screenplay? Well let’s set the scene:

 

Now there’s some dialogue the reader will thank you for.

 

SIDE NOTE: Adverbs generally hurt you as a writer. Adjectives too. Prepositions and conjunctions can likely go as well.

 

There is one other major concern when writing dialogue and it has to do with creating good yet believable dialogue.

 

Let me ask this question: what percentage of screenwriters do you think are male?

 

I did a survey of my own network of peers and found that, in fact, 100% of screenwriters are male.

 

SIDE NOTE: A study on Wikipedia say 72%. So it may be somewhere in between.

 

It makes sense. Screenwriting is a solitary activity that allows the socially retarded to express themselves creatively without any labor intensive work (AKA filmmaking).

 

And since most screenwriters are male, a common difficulty for these writers is to write for female characters, sometimes referred to as “women.”

 

SIDE NOTE: Women also have trouble writing for women. They just won’t admit it.

 

So how do you solve this?

 

First you must understand the role of women in the story. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it is detrimental to have a woman as your lead. What I will tell you though is that having a female lead is no different from making an art-house film or casting Tim Curry. What you’re making is called a niche film.

 

The default appearance for characters is white, early 30’s, average looking, heterosexual, middle class men. If you don’t believe me, write a screenplay with the main character PAT and do not give the character any descriptions. Ask a friend to read the script and then quiz them on Pat. They will describe him as I just did. Go on, try it.

 

But I’m getting off track. The point is that movies with female leads are aimed only at women. Just like movies with muppets are aimed at children and movies with Tyler Perry are aimed at the mentally deficient.

 

Movies with male lead characters appeal to both men and women and therefore a male lead doubles your audience, your ticket sales, your revenue, and, therefore, your project’s viability in the marketplace. If this truth is difficult to swallow, I recommend taking a deep breath and asking yourself this question: “What world is this?”

 

It’s the real world. Welcome to the real world. Quit being a baby.

 

So if your female character isn’t the lead, what role is she going to play in your film?

 

Anything except the lead.

 

She could be the sassy sidekick, the love interest, the sexpot, the techno geek, the sexpot, the mentor, the student, the sexpot.

 

The possibilities are endless.

 

Now that we’ve established the role of your female character, how do you write for her? What should she say? How does she react to situations?

 

Good question. And, unfortunately, the answer is different for every character.

 

If any of you male writers are reading this thinking “but most of the women I talk to sound the same.” Well I don’t know you so I won’t call you chauvinistic but for the sake of my argument, do your best to pretend women don’t find you repulsive.

 

Let’s look at the opposite of women: men.

 

Men are simple. Men want sex. Men pursue sex. Sometimes a man identifies something as a means to have sex and then he pursues that. Some of you may have even taken up screenwriting to get rich and famous in order to have sex. For additional examples of the male brain in action, read any history book.

 

Women are like men except instead of sex, no one knows what they want. Which is great for you as a writer because it means you can make them want whatever you want them to want. Even sex.

 

And the best part: no one knows what women want so they cannot argue with you. You can make your woman character want anything, nothing, everything, it doesn’t matter!

 

Let’s bring this back to dialogue. If you can make your female character pursue anything, you can make her say anything as well. So don’t be afraid of writing for women. Writing for women is easier than writing for men. There’s no way to fail!

 

For the women reading this, I hope what I’ve just said is not off-putting. You may be thinking “women just want to be loved and cared for and respected and challenged and happy and—” you’ve lost my interest.

 

Remember what a story is: A character pursues a goal.

 

Remember what a story is not: A character pursues 17 different half thought out desires in the hopes of maybe being a little happier or making her friends jealous.

 

And that is why it helps to have a main character who is male. Because males focus on one thing at a time: Sex. Or something they believe will lead to sex.

 

SIDE NOTE: I think I may have gotten off track. Just don’t worry about writing for women.

 

Now that you’ve learned how to write good, terse dialogue for both genders, let’s discuss how dialogue should look on the page. Remember that dialogue is, by default, going to be read without emotion or annunciation. To hear how your dialogue will sound to a reader, imagine HAL 9000 after he’s had eight cups of coffee.

 

But you do have some control over dialogue thanks to the magic of… punctuation.

 

Let’s start with the comma. One of the most essential forms of punctuation in the English language and I imagine also popular in other languages.

 

But what does a comma do? When should you use it? Who invented it? Is there a Mister Comma? What about a Mrs. Comma? How are they doing? And why did they make it such an ugly word when said in a Midwestern accent?

 

I could tell you how to use commas by reciting everything you don’t remember from high school English class but that isn’t what we’re talking about. Using a comma according to the “rules” means you view literature as a science rather than an art.

 

And literature is an art so we’re gonna use commas however, we, goddamn, please.

 

In the case of dialogue, use a comma whenever you want the reader to pause for a quarter of a second. Let’s use this line of dialogue as an example:

 

“I’m going to the docks Diane and I’m not coming back.”

 

You could simply write it like that. But what if you want to really emphasize that your main character is not coming back:

 

“I’m going to the docks Diane, and I’m not coming back.”

 

What if you want to make it clear he’s speaking to Diane:

 

“I’m going to the docks, Diane, and I’m not coming back.”

 

Now you’re making some progress. Let’s introduce a couple more tools for dialogue:

 

The ellipsis: …

 

Three dots that indicate incredulity, or a longer pause as the character considers his or her words.

 

And finally: – -

 

The double hyphen to stop a character mid-sentence. Let’s have some fun with our new dialogue tools:

 

“I'm going-- I'm going to the docks, Diane... and I'm not... coming back.”

 

What if your character is a Christopher Walken type?

 

“I’m going, to the docks, Diane, and I’m not… coming back.”

 

What about William Shatner?

 

“I'm, going-- to the, docks-- Diane, and I'm not-- coming back--”

 

If you put a comma after every word it kind of sounds like Stephen Hawking’s robo-voice:

 

“I’m, going, to, the, docks, Diane, and, I’m, not, coming, back.”

 

So yeah, if you’re doing a sci-fi that’s how you’re going to want to write the robot.

 

But let’s take our discussion to the master level by introducing a few other tools for dialogue:

 

Bold Words and Underlined Words

 

Utilizing these functions on your computer will indicate to the reader that you are a serious craftsman. But what do these specific fonts mean for dialogue?

 

Well they mean the same thing. Bold words and underlined words tell the reader to PAY ATTENTION!

 

Are the docks important? Why not write:

 

“I’m going to the docks Diane and I’m not coming back.”

 

Bold/Underline tells the reader that these words are the important ones. Readers like this because it indicates which words they really can’t afford to skip over. Be careful not to overuse the bold and underline because if you bold a word and it turns out to not be important, the reader is not going to read anymore of your bold words.

 

And lastly, let’s not forget about italicized words. Italicized words tell the reader that something strange is going on. Let’s look at an example:

 

“I’m going to the docks Diane and I’m not coming back.”

 

Why is “the docks” italicized? I’m not sure but since the writer italicized them on purpose… I guess there’s something interesting about the docks.

 

Italics tease the reader. Italics say “There’s something important about ‘the docks’ but I’m not going to tell you what it is Mister Reader. I guess you’ll have to keep reading. Wink Wink.”

 

SIDE NOTE: Only amateur readers will enjoy being teased with italicized words. Seasoned, jaded readers will tell you to “fuck off with your italic bullshit, I’ve got five more scripts to get through today.”

 

When writing dialogue remember that it needs to be spoon fed to your reader with punctuation. Let’s ask Christopher Walken if he agrees:

 

“I agree, with you. Dialogue is meant, to be, spoon fed, to the reader.” Thanks Chris.

 

And if you’re unsure about where to put commas into action description, just throw them in wherever they feel right. No one remembers that bullshit 11th grade English-class nonsense.

 

SIDE NOTE: Emoticons should only be used sparingly in 21st century screenwriting. And remember to utilize the winky face when trying to bang your coworker. ; )

 

 

PARENTHETICALS

 

Now that you’ve learned how to write GOOD dialogue and how it should appear on the page, it is time to discuss the most important element of dialogue: The parenthetical.

 

Punctuation allows the writer to phonetically show the reader how to read the dialogue but that still does not express emotion. The challenge is therefore to make emotion clear to the reader who (quick reminder) is apathetic, bored, or (best case scenario) simply an idiot.

 

In order to discuss how to clue the reader into a character’s emotional state through dialogue, let’s use an example:

 

SARAH: Oh my goodness Tiffany, I love your dress.

 

As a reader, how is this line going to be interpreted? Well I guess Sarah is a big fan of Tiffany’s dress…

 

However, if you’re trained in screenwriting or you’ve ever spoken to a woman before, you know that’s not true.

 

Sarah hates Tiffany’s dress. It’s tacky and makes her butt look flat. Plus, Sarah knows Tiffany has been talking shit behind her back. Sarah might not be able to prove it but Kayla said Tiffany laughed at a joke Lauren made even though it wasn’t funny but just passive aggressive which doesn’t make sense because Sarah supported Tiffany emotionally when Lukas broke up with her.

 

Now, how do we convey all of the trivial emotions Sarah is juggling with our single line of dialogue? We have a couple options. The first is to use action description:

 

The action description makes it clear Sarah finds Diane’s dress to be tacky and her words are therefore disingenuous. And while this may seem like a suitable option, let’s look at what the reader noticed as he or she was speedreading the script:

 

“Sarah… dress… noticing… patterns…” And the reader’s phone is ringing and they still have three emails to answer and the hot intern asked if they wanted to get lunch so what does that mean, should they make a move?

 

Point is, the reader didn’t catch very much.

 

So how do you drive home that Sarah is a fake friend whose insecurities are causing her to be passive aggressive? The answer is the “parenthetical.” Every writer’s dream.

 

Remember that before every line of dialogue you’re allowed to put a couple words inside a parenthesis to indicate how the line should be said. For example:

 

Problem solved. And while this get-out-of-jail-free card was originally invented so brainless actors knew how to say their lines, that doesn’t mean you can’t use parentheticals to help the readers who are far too ugly to ever act. Parentheticals are the key to giving dialogue emotion.

 

Not sure how to convey a character is disingenuous? Parenthetical.

 

Don’t want the action description to seem heavy handed? Parenthetical.

 

Hungover and on a tight deadline? Parenthetical.

 

Parentheticals can even be used to suggest feelings in addition to tone. For instance:

 

Now it’s the actor’s, director’s, and editor’s problem figuring out how to convey that Sarah is insecure. Best of luck gentlemen, if you need me I’ll be tanning poolside with my phone off.

 

 

TRANSITIONS

 

All screenwriters know that transitions exist in screenplays. CUT TO. DISSOLVE TO. FADE OUT. STAR WIPE. These terms are used to indicate how to transition from one scene to the next.

 

So how do you, as a master level craftsman, utilize these tools?

 

The answer is, of course, that you don’t.

 

Transitions serve no purpose. It’s not the screenwriter’s job to say how to transition between scenes. If you really feel like micromanaging, why not write a transition for every shot in the movie? Moulin Rouge had roughly 1800 different shots. Did the screenwriter feel the need to write “CUT TO” 1800 times? Of course not.

 

Keep in mind that the odds of your screenplay being produced are .01%, so who cares if one scene crossfades into the next.

 

Your job as the screenwriter is to create and sell a compelling screenplay. After that, it’s not your problem. For all you care, each scene could begin and end with a flaming swastika ejaculating glitter. Leave it to the director and editor who won’t do anything fancy because they’re too busy figuring out how to show all those parentheticals you’ve written.

 

Remember that your script is not a movie, it is a suggestion.

 

“This is what I think a good movie would look like.”

 

That’s all your screenplay is. And when executives purchase your screenplay they are saying “I agree with you to the extent that I don’t disagree with you” which is a polite way of saying “we’ll keep the premise and scrap the rest.”

 

Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Everyone has a unique vision for the project in their head and in order to create their vision, they must destroy yours. So don’t use transitions. Let the editor create his vision of the project by deciding how to edit the movie. Just like the rich white executive created his vision for the project by casting the Rock, setting the 3rd act in Shanghai, and cashing in on the Asian market.

 

Accepting what you can and cannot control is what will cause people to label you as “easy to work with” and that will allow you to find future work.

 

But remember to mind your semantics because there is a very thin line between “easy to work with” and a “yes-man.” No one likes yes-men.

 

“Oh I agree, let’s forget what I said and do it your way!” -Pushover Yes-Man (No one likes this guy)

 

“I think both options are suitable however I can see how your option might be more accessible to the audience and I’m open to moving forward with it.” -Easy To Work With (Fruitful Career)

 

You are writers. Semantics are your craft. Understand what you can control and what you cannot control and choose your words accordingly.

 

SIDE NOTE: You pretty much cannot control anything.

 

SIDE SIDE NOTE: I feel like I went off on a bit of a tangent. Just don’t use transitions.

 

 

SOUND EFFECTS

 

The last on-the-page concern to discuss is the use of sound effects in your screenplay. Sometimes shortened to SFX, sound is an important part of filmmaking. After all, movies are nothing more than images with sound. So sounds are technically 50% of movies! They probably shouldn't even be called screenplays, they should be called screen and speaker plays!

 

Enough levity. Let’s look at a couple examples of sounds from movies:

 

BBBBBWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW

 

Sound familiar? It’s from the soundtrack to the movie Inception. The van cascades slowly to the river below as the occupants go deeper into the dream world. All the while being barraged with…

 

BBBBBWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW

 

Or what about this one:

 

Da dun. Da dun. Dan dun, da dun, da dun.

 

It’s Jaws!

 

Or The Pink Panther I suppose.

 

The point is that some of the most memorable moments from film are created with sounds. But how do you put sound and music into your screenplay at the master level? Let’s start with the basic level:

 

There is the basic level. The SFX term has been used to tell the reader that sounds are being heard. As a result our action description is boring. Unelevated. Shitty.

 

You are storytellers, master craftsmen, artists. The canvas is your page. Words are your paintbrush. Prose is your paint and your easel is probably also words.

 

What you want to do is suggest what your viewer will be hearing by working it into your prose. Let’s try again, this time incorporating some of that style from the Action Description chapter.

 

SIDE NOTE: If you don’t remember the Action Description section don’t re-read it. In fact don’t even flip back and skim it. Just return the book to whatever garage sale you stole it from and stop wasting your time.

 

Anyway, Rocky has to hear a sound so let’s get to that:

 

Using capitalized words is an effective way to show sound effects without typing out SFX like an amateur. Some helpful words:

 

CRASH! BOOM! POW! SHAZAM! SHIZZLE! TICK-TOCK! KA-POW! PA-COW! WAH-WAH! NEIGH! CLIP CLOP! KA-CHING! WAKKA-WAKKA! BLING-BLONG! RIZZLE-RAZZLE!

 

And what about music?

 

If you want to put music in your screenplay a good rule of thumb is to not put music in your screenplay. The problem with music is this: Copyrights. People own music.

 

Now I know what you’re thinking: People can’t technically own anything. The world was here before us and will exist after we’re gone.

 

And I agree. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume Paul McCartney is not going to let you use “Let it Be” during your screenplay’s climatic scene.

 

So unless you’d like to triple your budget to have the right background music, leave all music out of your screenplay. Because, as we’ve learned before: that’s the editor’s problem.

 

What about older music that is in the public domain? Maybe your character is listening to Tchiakovsky’s Minuet in A minor?

 

Don’t include it. The reason: No reader will know what song you’re talking about.

 

The proof: Tchiakovsky never wrote a minuet in A minor.

 

Further proof: I misspelled Tchaikovsky twice and you didn’t notice. Are your minds blown with what I just did? Perhaps you’re hearing a certain sound effect in your head right now:

 

BBBBBWWWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW

PART II

 

 

 

MASTER LEVEL SCREENWRYTING

 

 

 

MAIN CHARACTER

 

The first thing the reader is going to learn about your main character is his name. Or, if you’re still in denial… HER name.

 

The goal of a character’s name is to make the reader associate that name with the attributes of your character. For instance, if you have a nerd character, you might consider naming him Dewey. Or if you have a muscular dimwit, maybe name him Marko. If you have a douchebag you might name him Reese like the guy I knew in the 10th grade who was a complete tool.

 

Since you are naming your protagonist, you want the reader to associate him with leading men. For this reason, I recommend naming your main character by combining the names of two leading men in Hollywood.

 

Perhaps combine Clive Own and Hugh Jackman into Clive Jackman.

 

Clive has an air of worldly sophistication and Jackman sounds like it might have quasi-sexual implications.

 

I could write for hours on how to properly construct a character with depth and humanity. But this is a screenplay and if your dialogue is ever read in front of a camera, it’s going to be done by a lingerie model who took an improv class or an empty-headed thespian who can barely remember his PIN number.

 

With that in mind, the key to a strong main character is to make them viable in the marketplace.

 

You’ve got a story about a depressed, agoraphobic, 79-year-old man whose journey explores all elements of the human experience? That’s great. No one wants to see that.

 

Make him 32, give him an unkempt but still sexy beard and a best friend who either smokes pot or is a talking animal. Bonus points for a talking animal who smokes pot.

 

There are two requirements for all leading characters in a movie and you must incorporate those into your screenplay: All main characters must be attractive and they must be good at something. This will make the audience like them.

 

Look at Good Will Hunting. If Will Hunting didn’t look like Matt Damon and he wasn’t a genius, he’d just be kind of a dick. Or what about Titanic? It stars Jack, a good looking dude whose talent is tricking Kate Winslet into getting naked.

 

So describe your character as ruggedly handsome and make him talented and you’ve created a nuanced, marketable lead character.

 

SIDE NOTE: Consider replacing the I’s in your character’s name with Y’s to make them more memorable.

 

But it isn’t enough to just describe your character with a couple words and hope the reader interprets the character correctly. What if they skip over those couple words and don’t realize your main character is attractive? That could be a major disaster.

 

Thankfully, our toolbox of master level techniques has an answer for this. The key to creating characters the reader understands is to use word association. Surround your character with words that reflect how you want them to be viewed. Let’s look at an example:

 

As a reader, what is one word you would associate with our character Clive?

 

Did you say ‘nice?’ I thought so.

 

Even a reader burning through your script while picking up their boss’ dry cleaning and searching for discreet massage parlors will read:

 

Nice guy Clive… pats… shoulder… nice gesture… niceness.

 

And that’s close enough! By describing Clive and everything Clive-related with the world ‘nice’ we’ve established him as a nice character. Nice.

 

This example, however, is fairly simplistic. After all, if you do this in every piece of action description, the reader may catch on after 40 or 50 pages.

 

So let’s take it to the master level and use different words. To find these different words, let’s go back to our co-pilot Dr. Thesaurus. Punch in the word ‘nice’ and watch the magic happen:

 

Now the reader is subconsciously on the hero’s side thanks to the power of word association.

 

SIDE NOTE: This technique works outside of screenwriting as well. If you’re flirting with a girl, say friendly words out loud so she associates you with them in her mind. “Hello, it’s NICE to meet you. You’re WELCOME to come home with me, I’m KIND of horny.”

 

Now let’s extrapolate on what you learned about word association to other parts of your screenplay. If word association is how readers subconsciously interpret a screenplay, it is your job as writer to use words to give your scenes a specific tone. And as with everything screenwriting related, that means sometimes getting creative.

 

Are you trying to create a feeling of horror in your scene? Why not use the word ‘decriptic.’ Now you’ve accomplished two things: you’ve established a horror atmosphere and you’ve sounded smart by using a word the reader doesn’t know.

 

Some of you Puritans will respond with “decriptic isn’t a word.” If that was your response, I’d like to reiterate my earlier point: welcome to the 21st century. This isn’t your dad’s literature of old where words have strict definitions that must be understood to comprehend the story.

 

This is screenwriting in the digital age. Your screenplay is merely a suggestion of a movie and words merely suggestion meaning. Perception is reality in 21st century writing and whatever the reader believes your script to be is what it is.

 

So in addition to creating your own words, remember there are also words to avoid. These are words that have technical definitions different from what they sound like. Keep in mind readers are often too dumb to know these words and too busy/lazy to look them up.

 

Examples of words to NOT use:

 

Inflammable: The actual definition is “easily set on fire” but it looks like it means “unable to be set on fire.” Using this word is setting up your reader for a world of confusion.

 

Fungible: The actual definition refers to goods or money that can be replaced by equivalent items. In 21st century screenwriting it means “fungus-y.”

 

Restive: If you think this word means something is relaxing, congratulations, your vocabulary is at the exact level of the film school dropout reading your screenplay. Be sure not to improve your vocabulary any more at the risk of alienating yourself from your audience.

 

 

THE CHARACTER ARC

 

Many writers find they struggle with portraying growth in their main character. A writer’s fear of coming across as heavy-handed causes them to write too subtextually or their fear of not getting their point across causes them to write too heavy-handedly. But character arcs are not something to be intimidated by. As you’ve learned, all elements of screenwriting can be taught and that is exactly what’s going to happen!

 

As with many of the other topics, I am sure all of you expert level writers are familiar with the idea of a character arc thanks to whatever garbage screenwriting book you read before this or whatever garbage screenwriting class you wasted thousands of dollars attending. But let’s dig in deeper.

 

What is an ‘arc?’ How does a character have an ‘arc?’

 

These questions are daunting to the uninitiated however the process is actually very straightforward.

 

Let’s back up and define the word ‘arc.’ According to FreeDictionary.com, an arc is “a part of the circumference of a circle or other curve.”

 

So essentially: “a character must have a part of the circumference of a circle or other curve.” Simple enough.

 

In order to go forward, let’s go back a little further. What exactly is the definition of “circumference?”

 

Circumference: “The enclosing boundary of a curved geometric figure, especially a circle.”

 

To state clearly: A character must have part of the enclosing boundary of a curved geometric figure, especially a circle, of a circle or other curve.

 

Which brings up a fair question: How can your character have a part of the enclosing boundary of a curved geometric figure, especially a circle, of a circle or other curve?

 

After all, your characters are flesh and blood, not curved geometric figures.

 

Or are they?

 

Your job as writer is to analyze and articulate decision making in storytelling. As such, it is your job to quantify emotional change in your characters. To do this, let’s look at some simple pictures:

 

 

In the above diagram, the character’s emotional journey is represented by curve AC with point A being the starting point and point C being the ending point.

 

SIDE NOTE: Many amateur level screenwriting books prefer to use the letters A and B due to a lack of knowledge about screenwriting and radial geometry.

 

The dihedral angle (omega) represents the degree to which the character changes. Some characters change 180 degrees, causing their character arc to look thusly:

 

SIDE NOTE: This is how the term ‘shaping a story’ came into popular use. As a writer it is your job to determine the size of your character’s dihedral angle.

 

If this explanation feels too simple, do not worry, for the above example assumes the character only has two identifiable points (Vectors A and C). However this is hardly realistic so let’s give the character additional points of change, represented below with vectors b1, b2, and b3.

We have now given the character three distinct vectors, AKA points of change. And we can still notice the dihedral angle, AKA spherical angle, representing the degree of overall change.

 

Now if I may read your mind, I understand the term “overall change” is vague to the point of embarrassing so let’s define it in more detail:

 

 

And if I may read your mind again, I hear you questioning whether it is not overly simplistic to give a character only three points of emotional change represented by the b values. After all, in real life change occurs on a micro scale and that should be reflected in your screenplay. These micro scale moments come in the form of dialogue and actions and, for this reason, we must elevate our discussion from the novice level to the master level, AKA the atomic level:

 

 

And with that we have quantified the micro emotional beats a character experiences so let’s bring it back to the macro by computing the character’s dihedral angle.

 

To do this with your own character, first pick an arbitrary vector V that is not tangent to either of the two planes. Then, applying the Gram-Schmidt process to the 3 vectors (A2 – A1, A3 – A1, V), produce an orthonormal basis of space, the 3rd vector of which will be normal to plane A. Doing the same with the vectors B2 – B1, B3 – B1, V, yields a vector normal to plane B. The angle between the two normal vectors can then be computed by any method desired.

 

And that’s the definition of a character arc. Well executed character arcs can be found in such films as The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Herbie: Fully Loaded.

 

 

HOOKING THE READER

 

Since your screenplay is a sales document, it is essential that it accomplishes the most important goal of any sales document: to entice, interest, intrigue, and arouse the individual you are selling it to, AKA the patsy.

 

To translate this idea into story terms, the primary goal of your screenplay is to “hook” the reader. You need to make the reader WANT to keep reading. And this is a tricky task considering every reader has a near infinite amount of options for things they could (and would rather) be doing instead of reading your god-awful screenplay.

 

SIDE NOTE: I apologize for calling your screenplay god-awful.

 

Some amateur level screenwriting books talk about hooking the reader in the first five pages. Why five pages?

 

Because why not five pages?

 

Picking an arbitrary number like five is proof that writing something in a book is the easiest way to give credibility to whatever an individual thinks should be viewed as fact. Having read thousands of screenplays myself, I can promise you that “hooking the reader in the first five pages” is nonsense. In reality, you only have four pages to hook the reader.

 

So what does that mean for writers? How do you properly utilize the first four pages so the reader becomes hooked? How do you prove to the reader you are a good writer in so little time? Do you simply throw all your best ideas into the first four pages creating a cacophony of action, sex, and wordplay?

 

Yes!

 

A good writing exercise is to take a screenplay you have completed, pick out the best parts, and figure out how to jam all of that into the first four pages.

 

However four pages is the maximum amount of time you have to hook the reader and, as master level craftsmen, it is paramount that you hook the reader as quickly as possible.

 

Look at your first page. It should contain no extra words, no unnecessary descriptions. It should be terse and compelling poetry. It should be a demonstration of the English language’s power and rhythm.

 

And that’s great for a macro level analysis but dig in further. How does the first clause in the first sentence look? Does it establish a steel emotional bond between the reader and the main character?

 

How do the first four words of your screenplay sound? Say them aloud. Repeat them. Are there other people around you? Are they weeping at the beauty of what you’ve created? If not, it’s time to reconsider what you’ve written.

 

Take the first three words of the screenplay. Have these words ever been uttered before? Google them. Are there any results? Maybe your prose isn’t as original as you thought.

 

Do the first two words of your screenplay introduce relevant conflicts and themes? Is that space on the page being used to its full potential? I can’t say. Only you can.

 

What is the first word in the screenplay? What part of speech is it? Is it an article? Is it “A?” Is the first word of your screenplay seriously “A?” Seriously? Go back to working retail.

 

 

INCITING INCIDENT

 

The most important part of a story is called the Inciting Incident. It is a fancy vocabulary word for whatever gets your story going. You may have heard other terms for it: Exciting Incident, Inciting Element, Instigating Event, Story Starter, Titty Twister, Twinkie Twirler, etc…

 

Whatever term you’re familiar with you know what it means: Something has happened to start this story. Pedal to the metal. Shit is going down.

 

In Star Wars the inciting incident is when Luke gets the voicemail from Princess Laya.

 

In The Tree of Life it is when the universe starts.

 

In Up it is when the old man abducts the child.

 

The most common question asked about inciting incidents is “when should it occur in my screenplay?”

 

Amateur level screenwriting books will tell you it should occur halfway through the first act. Maybe between pages 12 and 15. Others will tell you it should occur after you’ve established the characters and setting. If these answers sound confusing or vague it is because they are wrong.

 

As you just learned, you don’t have long to hook your reader. If even the most idiotic screenwriter will tell you that the first five pages must hook the reader why would you place your inciting incident after that?

 

For this reason, the inciting incident should occur as soon as possible in your screenplay.

 

In the most recent screenplay I wrote it happens in the very first line:

 

My screenplay immediately stands out among murder mysteries. If the conventional murder mystery waits until page 15 for the murder to occur then I’ve already got a 15 page lead.

 

Now I know what you’re thinking: “isn’t that technically the 2nd line? The slugline is the first line.”

 

You’re absolutely correct. That example was nothing more than a test. My actual screenplay reads:

 

A lot of script purists will tell you this not only breaks screenwriting rules that have been in place for decades but is also difficult to understand. Thankfully, the rules are meant to be broken and the inciting incident needs to occur as early as possible. And for that reason I recommend making it the first line in whatever script you are writing.

 

But let’s elevate our discussion to the master level.

 

How do you make your screenplay stand out among others when everyone is placing their inciting incident in the first line?

 

The title.

 

Putting the inciting incident in the title hooks your reader before they even crack open the script. The title of the script I used excerpts from above is “Clive Finds a Body.” There is literally no way to make the inciting incident occur any earlier in the script.

 

SIDE NOTE: Remember that your screenplay is not the only thing that needs to hook the reader. Look at the return address on the envelope you sent the script in. Does it hook the reader? What font did you choose? Times New Roman says “I’m doing this by the book” but Arial says “I’m not afraid to spice things up.” Does the color of the envelope complement the themes of your story? What about the stamp? Did you go with a generic American flag? Why not something with more pizzazz?

 

 

STRUCTURE

 

If you’ve got a story idea in mind to write, you must decide how to “structure” it. How to organize it. How to order it.

 

And what is the best way to do that?

 

Imagine an assortment of puzzle pieces. Structuring a story is simply finding a way to put them together so that someone looking at the puzzle says “that’s a pretty picture” as opposed to “that piece isn’t motivated to sit next to that piece.”

 

Screenwriting guides often have entire sections on structure. Chapter after chapter on all the necessary pieces and how to organize them properly. We will skip all of this and jump to the important part.

 

The key to understanding structure is to understand that you have to make a choice:

 

Are you structuring a story?

 

OR

 

Are you structuring a screenplay?

 

Most screenwriting books will recommend using a three-act structure. They parade around great movies that used a three-act structure.

 

The Shawshank Redemption, Saving Private Ryan, Die Hard

 

There are a few good movies that used three-act structure so I guess you should as well? Okay, but keep in mind that for every great movie that used three-act structure there are four dogshit movies that used three-act structure.

 

And that brings us to the essential truth about screenplay structure:

 

A “well structured” screenplay is nothing more than a “conventionally structured” screenplay.

 

And how did the the conventional structure become the convention? Well at some point in screenwriting history someone decided to start referring to it as “good” structure and screenwriters followed like mindless geese begging for bread crumbs rather than creating something original.

 

Why isn’t a four-act structure considered good? Because it’s not conventional. And why isn’t it conventional? Because it’s not considered good. If it’s conventional it must be good because the definition of good is what’s conventional.

 

But why don’t we have some fun with this. Let’s put on the horse blinders and use some selective perception to figure out another element of all “well-structured” screenplays.

 

“Well structured screenplays should have a moment of apparent defeat at the end of the 2nd act where the protagonist seems doomed to fail.”

 

That’s fancy sounding so it must be right. Should we take the time to think of movies where this story development was used and the movie turned out terrible?

 

Nah. Instead here are some examples of movies where this story convention worked: Kiss. My. Ass.

 

I can think of six good movies where the main character had a mustache. I guess all main characters should have a mustache?

 

But if other screenwriting gurus want to look at good screenplays for patterns like Gregory Nash looking for Russian codes that is their business. Instead, let’s go back to the other option you have instead of structuring a screenplay.

 

Structure a story.

 

There are no requirements in structuring a story. Let’s look back in history at some examples of the greatest stories ever told:

 

The Odyssey, Ulysses, Hamlet

 

Do those stories follow similar structure? No, they don’t. I read all of their Wikipedia pages just to be sure.

 

And what about the most famous story of all time? You know, the one where Jesus died for everyone’s sins and came back from the dead.

 

If “conventional” structure was utilized, Jesus would have sword-fought Pontius Pilate on the rafters of a burning church while Mary untied herself from a ticking bomb. (WGA Premise Copyright #113255-23A. Jesus Lives is Intellectual Property of Arnold Wryter.)

 

There is no “correct” way to structure a screenplay. There is only the “conventional” way.

 

And now that we’ve identified the difference between structuring a story (unique) and structuring a screenplay (conventional), what does that mean for you? Which option should you go with?

 

Conventional. Obviously.

 

Remember that conventional = good. And if readers are judging your script on a scale from “not good” to “good” that means they are actually judging it on a scale from “not conventional” to “conventional.”

 

If you’re not sure how to structure a screenplay conventionally you definitely shouldn’t have read this far into the book. Go pick up literally any other screenwriting book ever written. Read two if you want to hear the same thing twice. Or maybe just pick up the script for Titanic, set the story in modern times, and change the characters’ names from Jack and Rose to Mitch and Mandy.

 

SIDE NOTE: Actually don’t do the Titanic idea, think of a different one. (WGA Premise Copyright #216334-13G. Titanic Reborn is Intellectual Property of Arnold Wryter.)

 

 

PACING

 

A common critique of screenplays is that they have poor “pacing.” Readers will give notes such as “the script has pacing issues” or “there are pacing issues in this script’ or even “this script, pacing issues it has.”

 

But what does that mean?

 

It means, quite simply, that the reader got bored.

 

So why doesn’t the reader just say that?

 

Remember the different types of readers. The one thing they all have in common is that they have bosses. For this reason, readers need to sound intelligent when critiquing a script. Simply saying “it was boring” is overly simplistic and not nearly as impressive sounding as “the screenplay has pacing issues.”

 

And while you have so far learned how to make your verbage more exciting, your characters more intriguing, and your prose more dick-poundingly awesome, there is another technique to fix a boring script.

 

And that involves asking yourself “where does the story actually start?”

 

Oftentimes writers start their story too late. There may be scene after scene showing the main character eating breakfast, going to work, or simply not killing anyone. These pages are devoid of conflict, AKA boring, AKA creating pacing issues.

 

One surefire way to make sure your story does not drag in the beginning is to take your finished screenplay and throw away Acts 1 and 2. The remaining 3rd act is now your 1st act. And with that, your story starts early enough and doesn’t have pacing issues. And you’re already a third of the way done writing the screenplay!

 

Now let’s take this lesson to the master level.

 

In order to accomplish this, finish the screenplay with the 3rd act as the 1st act. Now throw away acts 1 and 2, leaving you with only your 3rd act. That is now act 1. Repeat this process two more times.

 

The completed process is as follows: write three acts, throw away the first two. Write two acts, throw away the first two. Write two acts, throw away the first two. Write two more acts and throw away the bottle next to your computer you’ve been peeing into.

 

Your completed screenplay’s 1st act is now what would have been your original screenplay’s 7th act. How’s that for accelerating the plot?

 

Some of you may be thinking: why stop there? Why not repeat the process a few more times?

 

Go for it. Keep doing it until the unemployment checks stop coming.

 

And if the screenplay you end with doesn’t much resemble your original vision, don’t panic. This is normal. Keep in mind that Schindler’s List was originally about Oskar Schindler’s struggle to graduate from technical college.

 

 

STAKES

 

You’ve all heard of stakes and you all know what stakes are, which brings us to the natural question: what are stakes?

 

Stakes are what is lost if your character fails. Maybe the main character owes a lot of money to a local gambling shark. Maybe if he doesn’t pay back the shark he will be killed. Maybe he’s a writer himself whose only hope is to sell copies of his book. Maybe you should tell your friends about the book he wrote.

 

In this case, the main character’s life is at stake. But what should be at stake for your character? In order to determine that we must ask the most important question about stakes:

 

Can a story have too many stakes?

 

The answer is it cannot. No one has ever seen a movie and said “it was good but there was too much on the line.”

 

And with that in mind, let’s re-ask the question: what should be at stake in your story?

 

As much as possible.

 

Consider the ‘double down’ rule. Go into one of your stories, identify what is at stake and double it.

 

Example: The main character will lose his house if he doesn’t make a big sale.

 

Double Down: The main character will lose both his houses if he doesn’t make two big sales. And he will be killed.

 

Now you’re cooking with gas.

 

But wait, what if your main character’s life is already at stake?

 

Make his kid’s life at stake as well. He doesn’t have kids? Fuck it, send a skud missile flying towards New York. Now everyone’s lives are at stake.

 

The only thing you have to remember with stakes is to err on the side of caution. It is impossible to have a story with too much at stake so why risk having too little at stake?

 

Is your main character a spy trying to stop a nuclear arms dealer from selling to North Korea? Fuck it, make the arms dealer an ambassador to an alien species who are going to blow up the entire galaxy.

 

Are you writing a silly comedy about a yard sale? Make me give a shit. Add more stakes.

 

Stakes are what intrigue the reader and there’s no way to have too many. So where’s the confusion?

 

It is also important to have emotional stakes in your story. Emotional stakes are what the character stands to lose on the inside if they fail.

 

What is going to happen to your main character EMOTIONALLY if they fail? Are they going to be mildly upset?

 

Double down: Your character is going to become a drunken, empty shell of their former self with no one in their life and nothing to live for.

 

Before you get too worried about writing such a heavy narrative, remember that stakes are nothing more than an illusion. They are not going to come to fruition. Your main character isn’t going to lose his houses, or die, or watch the galaxy blow up.

 

And why isn’t your character going to fail?

 

Because this is the ENTERTAINMENT industry. You are creating entertainment to be enjoyed. No blue-collar bigot or white-collar office drone is going to drive to a theater and spend money to watch a complete failure for 2 hours. They could do that at home for free with a mirror.

 

 

RISING ACTION

 

A popular topic for screenwriting books to cover is “rising action.” If you have ignored this concept in your writing because of its complex nature, do not fear, it is actually quite simple. Rising action is nothing more than action which is rising. Let’s break it down.

 

What is action? Action is what happens. Do not make the mistake of thinking only a character can cause an action. Actions can be caused by weather, the supernatural, space ships, etc…

 

Stop reading this sentence right now and do something. That’s an action. And you need to ensure that this action is rising which means it is going up. Like when your church’s pastor says “please rise.” Or what yeast does. That’s also rising. And that’s what your action needs to do.

 

But rising action doesn’t refer to just one action. It refers to multiple actions. After all, one action is singular. Think of a single action as a point on a graph. It isn’t going anywhere. And in order to make your action rise, you must take into consideration all of the actions in the story.

 

Imagine a graph with an X and Y axis. Rising action is moving from point A to point B where point B is higher up the Y axis than point A.

 

Imagine your story as a rollercoaster. As the rollercoaster moves along the track, so does your story progress. As the rollercoaster goes up the incline, so must the action in your story rise. Those clicks you hear as you go up the incline on a rollercoaster? That’s rising action. The actions become more extreme, the stakes are raised, the audience’s communal erection grows.

 

 

Imagine a person riding an escalator. Is the person on the escalator going up? If they aren’t, imagine the escalator is going the other way. As the escalator goes up, the person on it rises. That person is your action. And that action is rising.

 

 

 

Discussing rollercoasters and escalators may suffice for the average screenwriter’s guide, but let’s elevate this discussion to the master level.

Imagine your story as a tesseract. A 3-dimensional representation of a 4-dimensional space. Movement within this hypercube is a straightforward way to think of rising action. Take the points in the Euclidean 4-space and remember that the eight hyperplanes that are bound within the hypercube are visualizations of the edges of your story. As action occurs within this story, so must it rise.

 

So that’s what rising action is. It’s like a rollercoaster. Or a diagram. Or a pastor in a church. Or the convex hull of a tesseract.

 

SIDE NOTE: Rising action is also like train tracks. Or an internet search engine. Or a set of antique bowls. Or a dog that smells bad.

 

 

RULES OF THE WORLD

 

Every movie takes place in its own unique universe. And while most stories take place in a world very similar to our own that does not change the fact that upon opening your script, the reader is unfamiliar with the world you’ve created. Therefore, establishing the “rules of the world” your story takes place in is essential to creating an understandable experience for the reader.

 

Let’s dig deeper into this phrase, “rules of the world.” It’s a strange phrase. After all, don’t most worlds have the same rules? Gravity is probably an issue. There’s usually light coming from somewhere. Maybe the Sun?

 

Rules of the world does not only refer to rules of physics. Instead, the term is used in a broader sense, referring to character and setting.

 

Look at your story and ask some general “rules of the world” questions: Is there any futuristic technology? Does the story take place in the present? If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, you’ve got some explaining to do.

 

Remember that in order for a reader to enjoy a screenplay or for an audience member to enjoy a movie, they must suspend their disbelief to some degree. Some movies require the reader to suspend their disbelief more than other movies. And the degree to which you are able to suspend the audience’s disbelief is based entirely on your ability to establish the rules of the world.

 

It’s not a matter of how much the disbelief is suspended but how WELL you suspend it. Examples of his can be seen in some famous movies:

 

Pretty Woman: Millionaire Richard Gere falls in love with a hooker. Totally believable.

 

Transformers: Talking alien car-robots fight other talking alien car-robots. No one bats an eye.

 

The Lone Ranger: Johnny Depp plays a Native American. Completely unbelievable horseshit.

 

In order to figure out the rules of the world you are creating, remember to start with the two most important questions:

 

“What are the cultural norms and values in this world?”

 

AND

 

“How much is the audience expected to suspend their disbelief to enjoy the story?”

 

Let’s analyze a single story. How about a story that has fun suspending the audience’s disbelief:

Air Bud 3: World Pup

 

Air Bud 3: World Pup opens with Josh’s soccer team enjoying success thanks to Josh’s dog playing on the team. At home, Josh deals with the stress of his mother marrying her veterinarian boyfriend, Patrick.

 

Immediately the viewer is introduced to a world where:

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The culture favors animal rehabilitation by professionals known as “veterinarians” rather than simply slaughtering the creatures for food.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Premarital conception is commonplace or, at the very least, accepted.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The society’s morality is not dictated by Sharia Law or any religious doctrine that would justify Jackie’s execution.

 

The story shows these characters existing in their everyday lives. It establishes the world early which allows the viewers to suspend their disbelief and believe veterinarian hunk Patrick would settle for Josh’s homely mother in a small town instead of pursuing a career in modeling and/or acting.

 

And this is what all writers must do with their stories. So how do you do this?

 

The key is to determine the rules of the world prior to writing a single page of the screenplay. In writing a screenplay it is necessary to write pages outside of the screenplay. Pages on character, story, and most importantly: RULES OF THE WORLD.

 

There is no way to write these pages wrong. Just write them. And when you’re done writing them, write more.

 

Figuring out the rules of your world requires generating pages and pages of unusable, esoteric nonsense. Your studio apartment should look like that of a paranoid schizophrenic whose hobbies include code breaking and paper mache.

 

 

THEME

 

All stories have a theme, AKA a message. All of them. Don’t bother trying to come up with a counter example. If you only take away one sentence from this chapter, make it this one:

 

If you don’t decide on your movie’s theme yourself, your audience is going to decide on one.

 

As a writer that should terrify you. One misstep and your movie could end up at every anti-vaccination conference for the next 50 years. All because you tried to be coy about your film’s message. Enjoy being harassed on Twitter and finding a pipe bomb in your mailbox.

For an example of this let’s look at the movie Scarface. It tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant played by famous Cuban actor Al Pacino. The audience sees Tony rise to power, lose everything in life he cared for, and die a violent death. Unfortunately, Brian De Palma was a bit too coy when promoting the movie. He didn’t state vocally that the movie is staunchly anti-Tony Montana and, as a result, every cholo, drug mule, and wannabe gangster from Los Angeles to the tip of South America owns an extra large t-shirt with a badass picture of Al Pacino on it.

 

SIDE NOTE: This anecdote can also be a lesson in merchandising and the power of misconception.

 

So what should your film’s message be? Well it is different for every screenplay. Is your character a womanizer who learns that marriage can be fun too? Your film’s message is “monogamy is the answer to happiness.” Or “you can’t always get what you want.”

 

Is your main character a cop who learns he has to go outside the law to protect that which he holds most dear? Your movie’s message is about the dangers of limiting the second amendment.

 

If the above examples have not made it clear, your screenplay’s message is directly tied to the growth in your main character. Whatever lesson your main character learns is what you are teaching your audience.

 

So what growth occurs in your main character? Does any growth occur? Did you even read the chapter on character arcs?

 

Keep in mind that the theme of your story is going to be a major selling point. Investors have the mistaken belief that if a film’s message is strong, it in some way means the film will be better. All writers know this is ridiculous but just let those idiots wearing the suits think whatever they want to think.

 

SIDE NOTE: If you are one of those idiot suit-wearers with that mistaken belief, Google “highest grossing movies.” See Transformers? What about Transformers 2 through 4?

 

Before you get to work, remember that when coming up with a theme, you are not trying to reinvent the wheel. You are not going to be teaching the audience anything they weren’t told in grade school:

 

Be a good person. Don’t be greedy. Don’t push Arnold’s face in the urinal. Everyone’s heard it before.

 

With that in mind, what you’re going to want to do is look at the 10 commandments and decide which one you’d like to reteach. For examples of this working in the past:

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt not lie: Liar Liar

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt not commit adultery: An Indecent Proposal

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt not kill: Literally every movie where a bad guy kills people

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt have no other gods: Zero Dark Thirty

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt honor thy mother and father: Mommy Dearest

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain: Probably skip this one

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy: Maybe just stick to the well known commandments.

 

Being aware that your story is not going to have some illuminating theme that will cause the reader to reevaluate their entire life should not feel confining. It should come as a relief.

 

It’s one less thing you have to create!

 

 

HIGH CONCEPT

 

The term “high concept” is a term that has grown in popularity in Hollywood. As expert level screenwriters looking to become masters, you may have heard the term. Perhaps you read about it in another screenwriting book or on an internet screenwriting forum. Maybe a development exec used the term when speaking with you about new projects. Just kidding, they don’t take your calls.

 

Let’s start by looking at a couple conventional definitions of “high concept”:

 

A type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise.

 

A pitch that has inherent appeal – just from the one line description.

 

Okay, so what we can gather from those definitions is that a high concept idea is an idea that someone hears and immediately knows is good.

 

But isn’t the term “good” as it relates to premises and concepts extremely subjective?

 

Yes. And for that reason, let’s elevate our discussion of “high concept” to the master level.

 

“High concept” is meaningless drivel. It is a term that has no value. The term “high concept” was created by the inarticulate to sidestep their inarticulance. The term exists because saying “bring me a good project” makes it apparent that a 9-year-old could be a movie executive.

 

“High concept” doesn’t just mean a project is “good” but that the project is “obviously good.” After all, God forbid a judgment call have to be made between tee times and coke lines.

 

In the entertainment industry they say you need to fake it till you make it. Well whoever originated the term “high concept” faked it so well they accidentally made it. Despite the term’s prevalence in the industry, “high concept” has no place in masterful discussions of screenwriting or storytelling. Referring to a project as “high concept” is akin to saying “I like this idea but don’t have the necessary time/ability/sobriety to explain why.”

 

To further make my point, let’s look at prime examples of high concept:

 

Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, The Matrix, Shrek

 

What a list. And what a coincidence that it is populated only by good films, each of which is good for different reasons.

 

When given the task of creating something “high concept” or to make a pitch “higher concept,” your job as the writer is to stock your project full of clichés to the point of plagiarism.

 

Why can’t there be a love triangle? Or aliens? Or a nympho-maniacal school teacher? Why not all three?

 

 

CLICHE

 

“That’s so cliché.” “It just seems a little cliché.” “Everything about it is a bit cliché.”

 

You’ve all had these reactions to your hipster friend explaining the type of mustache he’s trying to grow. And some of you have probably also felt it towards movies you’ve seen.

 

It is a common problem. This problem of writing something cliché.

 

But is it bad?

 

The obvious response is yes. If the reader views your writing as cliché, you have done something wrong. After all, if something is cliché that mean it has been done before.

 

However that definition of cliché is missing a few words at the end…

 

If something is cliché that means it has been done before AND IT WORKED.

 

When you get down to it, cliché simply means that you’re writing what was successful in the past. Your writing is industry standard. Nicely done!

 

Do you want to write something completely original? Good luck with that.

 

You are writing a screenplay to be used as a sales document. You aren’t stapling a bag of almonds to a bust of Captain Planet and calling it abstract art. So don’t be afraid of writing something cliché.

 

Instead of being afraid of writing cliché, be afraid of writing something the reader will identify as cliché because, unfortunately, cliché is an insult in Hollywood. Your goal is NOT to completely avoid the cliché but to avoid it just enough so the reader doesn’t label it as such.

 

Understanding cliché at the master level means understanding that cliché is NOT an insult.

 

Cliché is reliable.

 

Cliché is building a house with windows. Cliché is designing a car with four wheels. Cliché is throwing in some pumpkin spice and raking in that sweet October cash.

 

So to all the cliché haters out there I say Good Luck. Good luck with your super unique window-less prison-house. Good luck with your 7-wheeled Ford Shit-box. Good luck with your screenplay that takes place entirely inside Mother Teresa’s womb. I’m sure it will find its rightful place in the entertainment industry next to the other icons on your desktop.

 

 

THE POWER OF MYSTERY

 

Your goal as a writer is to captivate your reader. It is paramount that your story makes them want to keep turning the pages. And what is the best tool writers have to do this?

 

Mystery.

 

Mystery creates intrigue. Intrigue makes the reader curious. And curiosity keeps the reader interested. And with enough mystery the reader might even read your entire script. An incredible feat.

 

So how do you create mystery?

 

Simple: Add elements that confuse the reader. Not so confusing as to make them give up but just confusing enough to keep them reading. Consider adding details that are unimportant in the moment but have a feeling of importance.

 

For example, if your main character is sneaking through an abandoned warehouse it might read like this:

 

That’s fine. But let’s take it to the master level by adding some mystery:

 

Now I know what you are thinking: What in the hell is the Queen Doll?

 

It doesn’t matter.

 

But the reader doesn’t know that. And the reader is going to keep turning those pages, waiting for the Queen Doll to show up again. And the pages will turn and turn.

 

For the skeptics out there saying: isn’t the reader going to be mad when they get to the end of the screenplay and these “intriguing” questions haven’t been answered?

 

Simple: Find out in the sequel. Now we’ve added more intrigue. And now they’re reading more of your work to find out what the Queen Doll is.

 

SIDE NOTE: If you really are curious what the Queen Doll is, keep reading, I will answer it before the end of the book.

 

 

EDITING

 

The most difficult part of writing is editing one’s own work. After all, the point of a screenplay is to create a movie in the reader’s head. And since you know what the ideal movie looks like in your own head, it is impossible to know just how poorly a job the words you’ve written have done.

 

So how do you combat this? How do you edit your work and determine if the words you’ve written are achieving what you intended? Must you rely on peers and disappointed relatives to read your work and attempt to give feedback? Must you befriend the antisocial cave-dwellers at the coffee shop who work on screenplays themselves?

 

No, of course not. Never talk to the screenwriters at the coffee shop.

 

You must be able to read your own work objectively. But how is it possible to write a draft of a project and then read it later for the first time?

 

Most amateur screenwriting books address this problem by simply ignoring it. And even the most seasoned screenwriting teachers will argue that it is physically impossible by the laws of science to write something and then read it later for the first time.

 

Thankfully they are wrong. And it is possible due to the power of “substances.”

 

I suggest writing every first draft in a state of blackout drunkenness. Complete and total inebriation. Only in this state can you write words that will later be unrecognized by yourself.

 

And after you wake up and nurse the hangover, the editing begins.

 

This is how Lucas wrote Star Wars, how Bolt and Wilson wrote Lawrence of Arabia, and how Brando rewrote Apocalypse Now.

 

Consider tailoring your drink of choice to the story you’re writing. Are you telling the story of an all American action hero? Drink enough Budweiser to kill a medium sized Grizzly. Is your hero exploring the Cancun party life? Have some Tequila. What if your main character feels lost in suburban boredom? Take a hand-full of Ambien and get to work.

 

Now let’s take this discussion to the master level.

 

Remember that in order to maximize your productivity, writing and editing should be done in different spaces. In order to preserve your domicile as the location of your editing, find a different space for the creation process.

 

My process for writing a first draft is to consume the necessary amount of alcohol, cry the demons out of my system, and wander to the nearest coffee shop or public room-shaped enclosure.

 

If a uniformed police officer inquires about your inebriated gait, politely inform him or her than you are working. If anyone else inquires about it, tell them to fuck off.

 

Only through freeing yourself from the conscious mind can you hope to preserve objectivity later on.

 

Also, remember that as humans, sunlight dictates our circadian rhythm which gives us energy. For this reason, it is best not to wait until sundown to begin your creative exploration. I recommend getting started shortly after breakfast.

 

SIDE NOTE: Hello “sober me.” I think the chapter on editing looks really great and I can’t wait for you to read it. Also, I went ahead and texted our ex because I know you’re too much of a pussy to do it yourself.

 

 

SELF-CRITICISM

 

An alternate name for this chapter is “Why You Hate Yourself.” And you’re not alone. All writers hear a voice in their head that browbeats their work and some writers hear multiple voices up there. This self-hating voice tells the writer their work is garbage and they will never achieve success. This voice exists because all writers hate themselves.

 

SIDE NOTE: If you achieve any degree of success more than another writer, they also hate you.

 

But where does this self loathing come from? Is it your parent’s fault?

 

Of course. But who else is to blame?

 

Well, you are.

 

The personal insecurities that drew you to creative expression through writing are the same insecurities that remind you your work is garbage. As you stare down at the outline you’ve created, your self-criticism lets you know that you will never succeed and you will be an embarrassment to everyone you know.

 

So the obvious question to address is: How do you block out this startlingly accurate voice of reason? After all, it is very difficult to pursue a creative field while constantly being reminded you are completely average.

 

First off, give a name to the voice in your head. It is important to personify this dissenting critic. Mine is named Jerry. Maybe yours is named David. Or Ricardo. Or Dad. Once you’ve given the voice a name, it’s time to put the voice in its place.

 

Yell as loud as you can “Shut up ______”

 

Is the voice still there? Apologize to the library staff and yell it again.

 

Your relationship with self-criticism should be a battle. And remember that the best defense is a good offense. The voice in your head is trying to destroy your self esteem. Destroy your voice’s self esteem first. Draw a picture to personify the voice. Or find a picture of a random person through Google Images. Hang the picture from your wall and practice your knife throwing.

 

Is the picture of your voice overweight? Tell him or her that. Remember that any sense of discouragement should be channeled into violent aggression.

 

SIDE NOTE: Using the name / picture of your ex-wife is not recommended.

 

 

BRAND

 

The true juggernauts of Hollywood are the creators who don’t stop. They were able to propel the success of their first project into a string of projects that is sometimes referred to as a “career.” But how were they able to do this?

 

The answer is “brand.” They established a brand for themselves that they are known for. Make no mistake, having success in the entertainment industry is only possible with brand.

 

But what is brand?

 

Brand is an indentifiable aesthetic.

 

Brand is consistency in work.

 

To put it concisely, brand is making the same creative choice over and over again.

 

When you think of brands in the entertainment industry, what comes to mind? Perhaps Tim Burton’s dark color palette, Michael Bay’s action-orgies, or maybe those casting couch porn video actual-orgies.

 

Brand is a combination of style and repetition. Decide on something unique and exaggerate it to the point of insanity. Then rinse and repeat and ta-da! You’ve got a brand.

 

Brand is a curse and a gift. If you properly form one, you’ll work forever.

 

SIDE NOTE: You’ll get pretty sick of your work after a year or two.

 

Take John Hughes. He made a ton of movies about teenagers coming of age and, as a result, is an American treasure. How many of those movies do you think he really wanted to make? What do you think his personal diary looked like? It probably didn’t say something along the lines of “I hope I get to keep making these coming of age movies aimed at 13-year-olds. It sure would be a shame to expand on that outline I wrote about the double amputee war veteran.”

 

But he did it because brand is necessary. Would Adam Sandler continue to create movies if he abandoned his brand of silly humor aimed at the intellectually stunted? Of course not. But because his brand is strong he is able to pump out movies year after year despite the quality of said movies dipping from mediocre to childish to culturally embarrassing to culturally masochistic.

 

So how do you create your own brand? Well you could make a bunch of movies about neurotic intellectuals who have trouble with women.

 

Just kidding, Woody Allen did that already.

 

What about movies about the world ending?

 

Sorry, Roland Emmerich beat you to it.

 

How about movies that redefine themselves in the last scene at the cost of any narrative coherency and emotional stakes?

 

Nope, M. Night Shyamalan got there first.

 

How about you make two good movies and then a bunch of shitty ones?

 

M. Night again.

 

The point I’m making is that I can’t tell you what your brand is. If I met the 23-year-old Terry Gilliam there’s no way I could have known to say “Hey Ter-bear, why don’t you tilt the camera a bit and slap on a fish eye lens?”

 

Luckily, this topic is not one you have to dwell on because if you achieve any degree of success, your brand will be decided for you. If you manage to have a screenplay produced and the project is profitable, executives will come banging on your door begging you to recreate whatever aspect of the project they believe is responsible for the profit.

 

And if you do get this far and they do bring you in for a meeting, fight every urge you have to pitch whatever shitty vanity project you actually want to write.

 

“It’s the story of a Cambodian immigrant learning English in small-town Idaho.”

 

Wrong. That is not the project you want to write. The project you want to write deviates from your last project just enough to convince the general public they’re paying to see something original.

 

Was your last project about werewolves? Maybe this new project could be about mummies.

 

Just kidding, this new project will also be about werewolves. And the project after that will be about werewolves and so will the project after that. Pretty soon you will be introduced at parties as “the werewolf guy” and you will appear at Comic-Con fielding questions about the history of werewolves from a 42-year-old man-child dressed as a werewolf. People will see you on the streets and howl at you. Your children will cringe every time they walk by a costume shop. Your wife will pretend to support your work but in her eyes you will see she is aware of what you have become and the choices you made to get there. And you can take comfort in knowing that when you die, the fans you never asked for will be remembering your work by leaving patches of fur at your grave.

 

So don’t worry too much about brand. If you find success, brand will find you.

 

 

 

PREMISE GENERATION

 

Ideas. Creativity. Genius. Where do these things come from? Where is the genesis of an idea located? What part of the brain contains your next great idea?

 

The answer is nowhere.

 

Your next (or first) great idea is not locked away in some corner of your frontal lobe waiting to be discovered. You will not find it by staring at a wall, traveling the world, or consuming copious amounts of amphetamines.

 

SIDE NOTE: I have only tried two of those three ideas.

 

But wait, you’re saying, there are hundreds or at least dozens of brilliant movie premises in existence. Someone had to think of those ideas, right?

 

Wrong.

 

And before you try to get ahead of me, let me be clear: I am not advocating for creating by committee. Trying to discover great ideas in a team is equally as worthless as doing it yourself.

 

So if ideas are not generated by an individual brainstorming or by a group of people working together… how are great ideas generated?

 

Simple: Randomness. Blind luck.

 

And this brings us to the master level premise generation technique: the mad-lib technique.

 

All great premises are created by combining two distinct story ideas and hoping for the best. If you do it enough, eventually you’ll come up with something that works.

 

And why is it called the mad-lib technique?

 

Imagine someone approaches you and asks you to write a page of hilarious comedy. You could spend all day racking your brain for clever jokes and unique satire that will probably only appeal to a select few. Or, in the time it took you to write that page, you could fill out 200 mad-libs. Pick the funniest mad-lib. There’s your great idea.

 

And let’s elevate our discussion to the master level by setting some ground rules for our random ideas:

 

One story idea should be grounded in reality and the other must be batshit insane. Below are some examples:

 

List One (Rational Movie Ideas):

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The story of a child who feels ignored and ostracized by his family.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A poor man seeks to win the heart of a rich woman.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A young man yearns for more than his simple life offers despite his family’s desire for him to live at home.

 

List Two (Fuckall Crazy Ideas):

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A study of violence and the addictive nature of pain.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A criminal stumbles upon a stranger who he uses to seduce a virgin.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A farmer goes on a road trip in order to kill a black man.

 

Now that we’ve got three functional story ideas and three insane sentences, let’s combine them:

 

And that’s how the studios came up for the ideas for Home Alone, Aladdin and Star Wars.

 

So don’t worry about racking your brain for that one perfect premise that’s going to jump-start your career. Premise generation is like dating, it’s a numbers game. Just come up with as many ideas as you can and one is bound to bang you.

 

 

WRITING THE FANTASY

 

This chapter is not about the fantasy genre. It is about the most prevalent mistake that amateur screenwriters make and it’s referred to as “writing the fantasy.”

 

Many people use writing as an escape. You put down onto the page your fantasies for a rich relative to finance into a movie. However this can create problems since the people reading your scripts do not want to waste two hours reading a story you wrote because killing terrorists in real life is too difficult.

 

In order to avoid the common mistake of “writing the fantasy,” go back through your screenplays and see if they have any of the following:

 

1. A quirky, beautiful woman courts a shy, unsuccessful man.

 

This is an example of you, the writer, living out your fantasy of sleeping with a supermodel who understands why you’re unique.

 

This trope is often used by writers as a way of releasing their frustration onto the page. Real life is difficult and God forbid getting a girlfriend involve bettering your situation, improving yourself physically, or making yourself vulnerable. Consider masturbating before each writing session to avoid writing this fantasy.

 

SIDE NOTE: The masturbation should occur before you get to the coffee shop.

 

2. The main character is a successful screenwriter.

 

It makes sense to write about what you know. For this reason, you should not be writing about a successful screenwriter. Consider making your character a complete failure. Do you own a dog? Maybe your character should as well.

 

SIDE NOTE: Actually maybe just come up with a new main character.

 

3. A directionless man buckles down and changes for the woman he loves.

 

Lady screenwriter(s), this is for you. Every girl wants a guy who is witty and suave and caring and will bend over backwards for the woman he loves. Unfortunately, no one watching your movie is going to believe this person exists. And if he does and the story doesn’t end with him conning the woman out of her inheritance or coming out as gay then your story is broken.

 

Writing your fantasies down is a great therapeutic tool. Normal people do this in a diary or journal and do not ask their friends to read them and give notes.

 

SIDE NOTE: Asking friends to read your screenplay is a terrific tool for removing unwanted friends from your life.

 

 

CONTESTS

 

Winning a screenwriting contest is the best way to get your foot in the door of the entertainment industry. It is quite possibly the only chance you have at getting a script financed unless your geocaching hobby takes a takes a turn for the fortunate.

 

Fellowships are another way of getting your foot in the door. They are similar to contests except instead of winning money, you get to sit through lectures about succeeding in the professional world from professional writers who were hired by old college roommates.

 

SIDE NOTE: Consider taking a break now to check up on your old college roommates. Do they work in the entertainment industry? Do you still have those pictures of them you promised to destroy?

 

The typical screenwriting contest receives between 1000 and 6000 entries. Take a moment to digest that. Imagine a jar with 6000 jelly beans in it. Would you like to drop your single jelly bean into it?

 

If you said yes, you may have what it takes to be a professional screenwriter. And that will be $55.

 

So how do you get your script noticed out of the thousands of desperate, sad people submitting to these cash grabs?

 

The key to getting noticed is to tailor your script.

 

Remember that every fellowship or contest is unique. Simply writing a script and sending it out is like throwing mud against the wall and hoping it sticks.

 

Instead, turn that mud into high powered mud rifle bullets capable of shooting holes in the wall. Do this by researching the contests.

 

The Austin Film Festival takes place in Texas. Would your script’s chances be improved if the locations were made native to Texas? You bet it would.

 

And what about the character names? If you’re submitting to a contest in Boston, throw in a couple O’Doyle’s. Does the main character need to be named Ahmed? Of course he doesn’t.

 

Is it an LGBT contest? Throw in a couple gays. Are we still talking about Boston? Call them fags.

 

What is your name? Is it something boring like James? Why not change it?

 

Diversity is all the rage in Hollywood now. Maybe Rashid would serve you better. Or find a new name by changing your computer’s font to Wingdings and pressing a few keys.

 

ifjc

 

There’s a diverse looking “name.”

 

And what about gender? Women seem to be underrepresented in Hollywood. Why not change your name to Becky? That sounds like a woman. Why not spell it weird? How about Bekkye? That sounds like a diverse woman.

 

If you win and have to collect your prize in person just say you’re one of those trangentials or whatever the T in LGBT stands for.

 

Does the contest ask for a short bio? I bet your chances would be improved if the judges were under the impression your parents died in a bombing in Syria. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

 

And now for a question you may be asking: Is this unethical?

 

Absolutely not.

 

If judges want to give a prize to a woman instead of a boring white male then it is your responsibility to give yourself and your script the best shot you can. It’s not your fault women and minorities can’t seem to get their act together and write a decent script.

 

Tailoring your script to the contest it is being submitted to is an easy way to better your chances at receiving that brief glimmer of hope in the entertainment industry before being crushed by years of rejection. But let’s elevate our discussion to the master level by posing this question:

 

Does it even matter what advice I give? After all, you can’t ALL win these contests.

 

Or can you?

 

The key to not just bettering your chances but winning a screenwriting contest is to get into a position where you select the winner of said contest. And the best way to do that is to start your own.

 

Take a look at a few of my credits:

 

San Fernando Valley Screenwriter’s Award – Winner

 

KAWL Festival – Finalist

 

South Dakota Screenwriter Union Festival – Award

 

Do those screenwriting contests actually exist?

 

Of course they do. I should know, I created them. If they didn’t exist then putting them on my resume would be lying.

 

Did the contests receive many entrants? That depends on your definition of “many.”

 

If you were alone on a desert island and another person suddenly washed ashore… well you just doubled the population of that island. The number 2 seems like a lot in that situation.

 

Were both of the scripts submitted to the KAWL Festival mine? Does it matter?

 

After all, I’ve discussed the subjective nature of writing so you understand that choosing a “winner” in a creative field is akin to throwing darts at a dart board. Is the dart closest to the middle the winner? Only if you think aiming for the middle is what you should be doing. When I play darts I like to aim for the wall behind the dart board. Or the guy at the bar who called me a queer. Does that make me worse at darts? Of course not. It simply means I have different goals than most dart players.

 

So do not dwell on ethical concerns when starting your own screenwriting competition or when changing your name from Mike to Kimtree.

 

But if you really want to make it fair, open it up to the public. Ask for submissions on Craigslist. And maybe charge $85 per entry to weed out the people who aren’t serious.

 

Be careful though, no one is going to believe you won 9 film contests in the same year or you received a lifetime achievement award at age 26. So don’t go overboard. Listing your script as a semi-finalist is still worthy of mention.

 

And best of all, this success will also improve your personal life. No more awkward Thanksgiving dinners answering questions like “How’s L.A. going?”

 

“Well I recently won a screenwriting contest AND I recently started my own screenwriting contest. So I’d say it’s going pretty fucking great Uncle Gave-Up-On-His-Dreams.”

 

SIDE NOTE: Consider using those Sundance leafs to make your winner awards look fancy.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

What a journey. You’ve learned so much. From premise generation to editing to writing dialogue and action. You’ve learned techniques to impress and fool the readers standing in your way of selling a screenplay.

 

But most importantly, you’ve learned all of this at the MASTER LEVEL.

 

Which brings us to the natural question: Are you now a master?

 

No.

 

You are a master in training. You have only just begun your study of master level screenwriting. You are an apprentice to a great alchemist, a frat pledge to a seasoned date rapist. Master level screenwriting takes years of study and practice to fully understand. Imagine if you were trying to learn Portugese. Would it suffice to simply listen to all the Rosetta Stone tapes once? Of course not. You must hop on an airplane to Rio de Janeiro, take a cab to a favela, and immerse yourself in a world of drugs and prostitution.

 

So what is the next step?

 

To write. And write. And write and write. Generate premises, craft compelling characters, build stories.

 

Do this every day of every week and maybe, just maybe, you will someday be deserving of the title “master screenwriter.”

 

But remember, even if you utilize all the techniques and put in the work, success cannot be guaranteed.

 

And why not?

 

Because success means accomplishing your goals. And more than likely you’ve chosen terrible goals.

 

Let’s dig into this and ask: what is a good goal?

 

Well how about a pop quiz:

 

Which one of these is a good goal for an obese person?

 

A. Get in good enough shape to bang a blonde Victoria’s Secret model.

B. Get to a point where friends and family stop using the nickname “Tubby Ted.”

C. Lose ten pounds.

 

If you answered A or B, you are incorrect. And consider finding new friends.

 

If you answered C… you are also incorrect.

 

None of those are goals because none of those are in the fattie’s control. Not even option C.

 

People can’t choose to lose ten pounds because people can’t choose their weight. If people could, that Victoria’s Secret model wouldn’t be a model, she’d probably be working at Jiffy Lube.

 

Some of you may be thinking “but people have control over their weight through diet and exercise.” And that’s the point. The goal is to diet and exercise. Losing weight is the reward for achieving the goal.

 

What if by some injustice, you don’t lose ten pounds despite dieting and exercising everyday for 15 years. Does that mean you’ve failed? If your goal was to lose ten pounds then yes, you have failed. But if you set goals properly then you haven’t. The Universe is simply unjust. Get used to it.

 

Writing is no different.

 

Your goal is not to become a staff writer or a successful screenwriter because those things require the actions of other people.

 

Do you think you have any control over whether your screenplay is purchased? You don’t even have control over whether the intern reading your screenplay is sober. What if that reader took mushrooms before cracking it open and thought the pages were trying to suffocate him? Does that mean you’ve failed to create a compelling script?

 

Keeping in mind that you can only control your own actions, what is the goal?

 

How about to sit down and write for 2 hours every day without a break? Why not 4? How about 12?

 

Will these hours of work lead to a staff writer position? Maybe.

 

But if they don’t, does that mean you’ve failed as a writer? Not if you set goals properly. Then it’s the Universe’s fault.

 

So what about the two most popular goals aspiring screenwriters set: fame and fortune.

 

Fame is not a goal.

 

If a goal is something you have control over, then fame is not only NOT a goal, it is the exact opposite of a goal. Fame literally involves everyone except the person setting the goal and is therefore the exact opposite of what is required of a goal.

 

If someone asks you what your goal is and you respond with “become famous,” it is no different than if someone asked you what your favorite type of dog is and you responded with “my least favorite type of cat is the number 24.” You have managed to answer an opinion-based question 100% incorrectly.

 

But if you really are stubborn and want to be famous, I recommend taking a bus full of people hostage. That should do the trick.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please do not take anyone hostage.

 

And what about money? Is that a goal?

 

No more than fame. Unless your goal is “print money” then money is only acquired from other people giving it to you. And like fame, wealth is literally the opposite of a goal.

 

SIDE NOTE: If you’re looking to kill two birds with one stone, I recommend ransoming the people on the bus.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this book are those of Arnold Wryter and do not represent any other individuals affiliated with The Screenwryter’s Toolbox.

 

A goal does not relate to outputs, only inputs. The effort you put in is the goal. What you get out is called a reward. And if you think effort and rewards are related in any way, I recommend Googling “What is the lottery and how does it work?”

 

And this is why I cannot guarantee success. Success can only come from proper goal setting and God knows I’m not taking responsibility for whatever batshit crazy goals you people set.

 

So what can writing offer if not fame or fortune?

 

Enlightenment…

 

Is another thing writing cannot offer.

 

Sorry to all the pretentious douchebag creative-types. The hours spent typing on your computer has not made you any more intelligent or worldly than your stoner friend who plays Halo in his mom’s basement. Writing doesn’t lead to enlightenment because enlightenment involves learning from others, not expressing oneself.

 

Do you think Ernest Hemingway learned anything from The Sun Also Rises? Of course not, he wrote it. He already knew all that shit. To Ernest, that book was nothing more than a project. Like a grade-schooler turning in a diorama.

 

So what can I say to reassure you aspiring screenwriters if fame, fortune, and enlightenment are out of the question?

 

I can say you have a chance at a career.

 

You all have a chance. From the borderline illiterate to the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright-turned-screenwriter. And not only do you all have a chance but you all pretty much have the same chance.

 

Screenwriting is unique in that it is not only extremely competitive, it is extremely subjective. There are no reports or spreadsheets to quantify creativity and show who is truly best.

 

So get excited! Because only in an industry dominated by subjectivity is hard work truly rewarded. This isn’t high school basketball where you 5-foot white men are shit out of luck. This is screenwriting where you are only as good as the words on the page.

 

So what should you do after you close this book?

 

Sit down and write.

 

For how long?

 

Six hours.

 

Some of you might be thinking “six hours seems like too much for me.” Okay, but it might not be too much for another person closing the book.

 

I am a living example of this. I achieve because I never stop writing. How else do you think I got this manuscript to 1,497 pages in length?

 

SIDE NOTE: I have been told by my editor some cuts are to be made.

 

Hours and hours of work are the only chance you have. And that should come as a relief! Many of you are without jobs or social lives so time is on your side.

 

You’ve probably met supposed screenwriters who have friends and hobbies and play on softball teams. They won’t make it past 3 years out in L.A. They spread themselves too thin with human interaction and joy while you are locked away in a windowless room on the path to success.

 

SIDE NOTE: If by some miracle they ask you to play on their softball team, accept. You could use the sunlight.

 

So do not panic. Because screenwriting is not a sprint. Screenwriting is a marathon.

 

A marathon without a discernible route or finish line.

 

A marathon without encouraging spectators handing you water but instead worried family members begging you to stop running.

 

A marathon officiated by a blind man who accidentally shot you in the leg with the starting gun.

 

Best of luck!

 

 

WRITING EXERCISES

 

You’ve made it to the end! As a reward, it is time to get to work! Below are some writing exercises to jump-start your creativity.

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. Understanding the setting your character feels most comfortable in can help you unlock who he or she is as a person. To dig deeper into this, write an entire screenplay from the point of view of the main character’s bedside table.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Translate your screenplay into Mandarin. This is a useful tool for learning Mandarin.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Teleport your character to feudal Japan. How does he or she react? Are they surprised about the change or nonchalant?

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p<>{color:#000;}. Write a scene with the word ‘Renaissance’ spelled incorrectly. Give it to your friends to critique. Do they catch it? Use this as a tool to see which friends are stupid.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Actions speak louder than words. Write a scene with no dialogue and capture how your character behaves.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Characteristics speak louder than actions. Write a scene with no dialogue or actions. Who is your character TRULY?

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p<>{color:#000;}. Are your characters distracting from the narrative? Write a scene without dialogue, actions, or characters to capture the true essence of the story.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Make a list of obstacles that can challenge your character. Now make a list of character to challenge your obstacles.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Remember to never go easy on your character. What’s the worst thing that can happen to him or her? Make that happen. Now pause and see if you can think of something even worse! If you can, you messed up the first part of the exercise.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Write a scene with the word “razzafrazz” in it. It’s a fun word so have fun with it.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Write an outline for a different movie. Is it better than your current one? If so, just write that movie.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Write a manifesto in the voice of your character. Once completed, smear pig’s blood on it and leave it outside your local police station. If a manhunt ensues, you will know the voice sounds authentic.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Being able to generate pages fast is a skill all professional writers must have. To practice this, turn your apartment’s heater on full blast until you have written 15 new pages or you pass out.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The real world is the best place to find inspiration for characters. Pick out a stranger on the bus and adopt them as your character, following them around for the day and documenting their every move. Take this exercise to the master level by doing it for a month.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Brevity is a skill. To practice making every word count, chisel your screenplay into stone. The extra words will melt away.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Storytelling is a skill that can be practiced. Corner a stranger at a party and see how long they will allow you to speak before politely excusing themselves. Now see how long you can talk before they impolitely ask you to leave.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Your character has a conversation with God. What does he or she say? What if it was someone besides God? Did you seriously do all the other exercises already?

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The Screenwryter's Toolbox

  • Author: Steven Haas
  • Published: 2015-12-24 07:35:22
  • Words: 23245
The Screenwryter's Toolbox The Screenwryter's Toolbox