I’ve recently been able to get a hold of the personal email address of one of my favorite screenwriters. I have no intention of trying to sell him an idea or get him to read my script — I just want to buy the guy a beer or a cup of coffee and chat. How would you suggest I approach this?
It helps if you can attach a bottle of virtual scotch to your email, preferably this:
Short of redefining the laws of physics by pulling that off, here is more reasonable advice:
Write something short. This is not the time to post an autobiography. Rather offer your name, explain why you’re emailing, tell them you’re a fan, state your request, say thanks, fade out, the end.
Write something non-threatening. I would imagine that for most stalkers, screenwriters don’t rate high enough to make it on their list of potential victims, but at least in the world of cinema, try telling screenwriters David Kahane and Joe Gillis they’re safe (20 bonus points for anyone who gets both of those references). I think the phrase you’ll want to insert is, “I just wanted to see if I could possibly ask you a few questions about the craft.” That way the writer knows you have put a limit on your own expectations. By the way, suggesting coffee or a beer in an introductory email could be taken as, if not threatening, at least too assertive. I’d hold off on that level of potential connection until you’ve swapped several emails.
Write something laudatory. Here’s what you have going for you: Unlike actors and directors, who gets heaps of press coverage and attention, screenwriters — by and large — live rather anonymous, and some would say, disrespected lives. So if you say something like “I wanted to let you know how much I admire your work,” that’s probably a “you had me at hello” moment right there.
BUT BIG NOTE!!!
If you do have a writer’s personal email address, that could be disquieting to them. Like seriously so. You will almost assuredly have to explain how you got that information. This could be problematic depending upon who you got the email from, so be aware you could be messing with other peoples’ friendships.
But on the whole, most screenwriters I know are interesting and interested people; that is they know a lot and are innately curious. Plus writing is a lonely gig. And bottom line, we’re always looking for an excuse — any excuse — not to work. So write something short, non-threatening, and laudatory, and see how that plays out.
GITS readers, have any of you reached out to industry professionals you didn’t know to ask a few questions? How did you approach contacting them? Any further / better advice for Josh?
The supposed Hollywood conventional wisdom is NOT to use V.O. narration.
A question from Ryan H.:
Narration is generally considered a no-no in screenwriting, but some films have made magnificent use of it (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for one). Do you have any tips as to when and how to use narration?
There does seem to be a conventional wisdom in Hollywood against narration. My guess is execs and producers think it represents sloppy writing per the axiom, “Show it, don’t say it.”
A great example of this attitude can be found in the words of the Robert McKee character in the movie Adaptation:
“And God help you if you use voiceover in your work, my friends. God help you. It’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
Yet consider this list of movies which use voice-over narration:
A Clockwork Orange Forrest Gump The Shawshank Redemption Fight Club Apocalypse Now Sunset Blvd. Double Indemnity Trainspotting American Beauty Stand By Me Platoon To Kill A Mockingbird Lolita Babe A Christmas Story
Each of these movies uses voice-over narration and that’s just a list off the top of my head. So what can we glean from this list?
1. When the narrator ties together a story that takes place over a long span of time: Movies that make several time-jumps and cover several years — like Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption — can benefit from a narrator V.O. Hell, they probably wouldn’t work if they didn’t use narration.
2. When the narrator provides a distinctive personality (read: entertainment value): A la A Christmas Story. The narrator in this movie offers some of the most entertaining moments along the way.
3. When the narrator can help to establish a mystery upfront: Like American Beauty and Sunset Blvd.. In both cases, the narrator foretells in the movies’ opening scenes the Protagonist’s impending death.
Other than that, when I look at that list, I see movies where the narrator offers deep insight into the Protagonist’s inner world, revelations that might not be made as well through action and dialogue — Platoon, Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, Apocalypse Now, Lolita — each a deep journey into dark psychological places, where the narration is both revelatory in content and evocative in tone.
As it is, even without voice-over narration, scripts have a Narrative Voice, evidenced in the language of scene description, the nature of scene transitions, the pacing of scenes, and so on. For more on that, you can go here for an article I wrote for Screentalk magazine.
I guess the question boils down to whether your story benefits from taking that Narrative Voice, which is invisible in most scripts, and giving ‘life’ to it in the form of V.O.. Given Hollywood’s apparent disaffection for this narrative device, you’d have to have a genuinely compelling reason, like those listed above, for using narration.
And perhaps what the fuss is really about is development executives don’t like BAD voice-over narration. When it’s used well, not a problem.
What does everybody else think? And what other notable movies use narration?
UPDATE: Here is a comment from one of my students in the most recent online screenwriting course I took, her recollections of what Robert McKee had to say about using narration:
Can you strip out every bit of VO and still understand the story? Is the script moving without the VO? Coherent? Is the plot the same? If the answer is yes to all of these, then you can keep the VO. That means you aren’t relying on VO to tell/clarify/explain the story, but are using the VO (if well-written) to add new depth, perhaps even contrast, to the story. You are using VO as an effect element of characterization and world-creation, not as a crutch to keep a lame plot hobbling along.
Perhaps that’s the easiest way to decide: By using voiceover narration, are you adding something of value to the story, not just relying on it to facilitate a “lame plot?”
Some words of ‘wisdom’ from legendary Hollywood producer Max Millimeter.
A tweet from @CaveDude21:
Do you actually plot out the Protag’s Emotional Arc, or just go with gut?
I’m tempted to go to my default point: There’s no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. But you know what? I’m going to pull legendary Hollywood movie producer Max Millimeter into this conversation to lend some, shall we say, reality to the conversation.
Okay, first off, I gotta be frank. I hate that word “arc.” You writers throw that around in meetings all the time, arc arc here, arc arc there, here an arc, there an arc, everybody’s got a fucking arc arc.
Know what I think? Writers use that word ‘coz it makes it sound like you got some deep insight into a big fat mystery what a character’s about.
Bull shit! It ain’t rocket science. It’s about who a character is and what they go through. Boom! Easy peasy, let’s get sleezy.
So arc that!
Now let’s say I got a story. And I got back-to-back meetings with two different writers to see who I’m gonna hire to write said story.
Writer A, she comes in and while she goes on about the Protagonist’s arc, which as I just said drives me a little nutso, at least she’s telling me what I wanna hear: The Protagonist starts out over here being one way, goes through some shit, then ends up over here being another way. The story changes them, they’re like a different person, you know.
Okay, so it’s Writer B’s turn, and he comes in, and let’s say I’m tryin’ to be real nice, meet him on his turf. I say, “So what about the Protagonist’s arc?” And he says, “Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that, and instead of laying it out for you, I’ve decided to go with my gut in figuring it out.”
Now, you tell me: Who do you pick for that project, huh? Miss Here-Is-The-Protagonist’s-Arc-All-Laid-Out-Beginning-Middle-And-End or Mister-Go-With-My-Gut-You-Just-Gotta-Trust-Me-And-My-Artsy-Fartsy-Process?
See what I’m saying?
Look, you wanna write a spec script and you decide not to figure shit out before you type FADE IN, be my guest, ‘coz evidently you live in a world full of petunias and ponies, rainbows and ribbons la la la.
But you wanna live in my world, or better yet, work in my world, where it’s deadlines and competition and I need a script yesterday and just bottom the freakin’ line for me, yeah, you better damn well figure out your Protagonist’s arc, or else it’s bye-bye Hollywood, hello Radio Shack.
That still doesn’t mean I like that word ‘arc.’
An additional point: The Protagonist is almost always the single most important character in a story. As their Want defines the shape of the Plotline, the story’s physical journey, so too their Need defines the shape of the Themeline, the story’s psychological journey. It is critical to determine what both of those are for you to be in touch with the structure and soul of the story.
As to the subtext of the question: “Do I have to do the hard work of figuring out the nature of a Protagonist’s metamorphosis in Prep, before I write the script, or can I just type FADE IN and figure it out along the way?” A writer can choose to do anything they want. However I side with Max here: Work through this type of thing in Prep. Face it: You’re either going to figure it out then or figure it out while writing the script. You’re much better off working that out before you type FADE IN so you don’t get lost, frustrated and quit before you get to FADE OUT.
I love my characters! What is the best way to make sure readers will too?
Seems like you’re off to a good start in that you already love your characters. Presumably your affection for them will show up on the page.
That’s the thing about characters: They are the major conduits for a reader into the story’s emotional life. The more we dig into them, the more we understand the psychological dynamics at work in who they are and where their narrative destiny is taking them, the more likely we will be able to tap into their emotional nature.
First tip: Look for big ticket items such as want and need, and in particular zero in on aspects of their lives which are universal in nature. Trust. Fear. Hope. Despair. Belief. Regret. Each of us as individuals in our lifetime acquires a kaleidoscope of experiences, all of them coming with some form of emotional attachment and meaning. So, too, with characters. Those big issues can not only create a point of identification with a reader, but also help shape where the plot goes.
Also look for small specific dynamics at work in the lives of your characters. There’s a quote I love from author Anne Beattie: “People forget years and remember moments.” I don’t know about you, but that’s my experience with movies. You say a movie title, I immediately conjure up moments from that movie. And sometimes, the most powerful moments are the seemingly small ones.
Here’s an example from The Shawshank Redemption, a movie filled with memorable moments. There is a beautiful four-moment subplot centering around a harmonica:
After Andy gets out of solitary confinement for the first time, he heads to the mess hall for a meal with the others. Asked how he survived, here is Andy’s reply and the ensuing conversation:
ANDY I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all.
RED Oh, they let you tote that record player down there, huh? I could'a swore they confiscated that stuff.
ANDY (taps his heart, his head) The music was here...and here. That's the one thing they can't confiscate, not ever. That's the beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt that way about music, Red?
RED Played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't make much sense on the inside.
ANDY Here's where it makes most sense. We need it so we don't forget.
ANDY That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there's a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.
RED Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It's got no place here. Better get used to the idea.
So this little moment establishes two things: Hope, which is a HUGE theme in the story, and the harmonica.
Later Andy surprises Red by giving him a gift: A harmonica.
It’s a nice reversal in that Red is the guy who gets things including Andy’s rock hammer. Here Andy repays the gesture. Again a nice little moment cementing their evolving friendship.
In a scene soon after, Red is alone in his cell. He pulls out the harmonica. Studies it. Puts it to his lips and gives it the tiniest of toots. Puts it back in the box. And that is that.
This quiet tiny moment speaks volumes. Andy made a specific connection between hope and music. Indeed, he reinforced it by playing the Mozart opera over the prison loudspeaker system, a moment which transfixed the entire prison population. Here is how Red responded to that moment:
RED (V.O.) I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.
CAMERA brings us to Red.
RED (V.O.) I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away...and for the briefest of moments -- every last man at Shawshank felt free.
So harmonica = music = hope. The fact Red in that private moment in his cell where he gives the harmonica nothing more than a little toot suggests he’s not bought into the message of hope. Which leads us to one of the most emotionally riveting moments in the script.
The day before Andy escapes, he makes Red promise if he ever gets out of prison to go to a field in Buxton:
ANDY One in particular. Got a long rock wall with a big oak at the north end. Like something out of a Robert Frost poem. It's where I asked my wife to marry me. We'd gone for a picnic. We made love under that tree. I asked and she said yes. (beat) Promise me, Red. If you ever get out, find that spot. In the base of that wall you'll find a rock that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. A piece of black volcanic glass. You'll find something buried under it I want you to have.
RED What? What's buried there?
ANDY You'll just have to pry up that rock and see.
Which leads to this scene:
Now listen to the soundtrack… carefully. In the cut called “Compass and Guns,” at the 2:44 mark, precisely when Red first sees the tree in the field, we hear a harmonica. Then again at 3:15. I’ve cued it up so you can listen to it here.
A tiny moment, but what a wondrous grace note to round out the harmonica = music = hope theme. Of course, capped off by the final side of dialogue in the movie:
RED (V.O.) I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. (beat) I hope.
Sigh. Such a great movie.
Circling back to where we started, some advice to make readers love your characters as much as you do:
Love your characters: That passion makes it more likely you will write vibrant, alive characters. If you care about them, hopefully others will care about them, too.
Look for the big ticket items: Universal dynamics and themes your characters may have at work in their lives as those help to sweep up a reader into larger drama of those characters’ lives.
Look for small, meaningful moments: Where pure, honest, genuine emotion can speak directly to the reader.
There is a host of other things you can do. Make the characters funny. Charming. Entertaining. Courageous. And don’t forget, there are some characters who you want us to hate. But let’s start the conversation here.
GITS readers, what are your thoughts? How do you write characters you love so that others will love them as well?
Nowadays with digital filmmaking, the mantra is: Do something!
Scott, my question is how would a young person, such as myself, go about finding internships and other opportunities for screenwriting or directing? Ones that don’t exclude people who don’t have much experience and aren’t in college yet. I’m 15 so it’s probably near impossible.
When Lence1818 posted the question, mommyfollows offered a terrific response:
It might very well be impossible for you to do those exact things, except in whatever form a summer camp might take, but it’s not impossible for you to write and direct your own projects right this very second no matter what your age. I was about your age, sophomore in high school, when I first started trying to puzzle a story together. That was fiction, nothing meant for the screen, but every word you write for any storytelling format is another brick in the path toward a successful completed project, and every minute you spend putting together a film, no matter how short, is a chunk of experience you just won’t have if you don’t do it. Read about the 10,000 hour rule and take it seriously, or strive to be the exception; and study storytelling in general, and solicit honest, raw feedback. Do SOMETHING.
Do something. Today more than ever, aspiring filmmakers can create content. Digital cameras. Digital editing. You don’t need an internship to make a short film. Just go out and do it.
Don’t compare yourself to Spielberg or J.J. Abrams. They started somewhere. Their first efforts probably sucked. If you want to direct, trial-and-effort is a great way to learn.
Who are your favorite screenwriters? Who are your favorite directors? If you don’t know, what are you favorite movies? Find out who wrote and directed those. Then read and watch everything you can on those filmmakers. Books, articles, interviews, DVD commentaries, obviously their scripts and movies.
Then go make a short film. Write a script. Shoot it. Edit it.
Watch more movies. Read more scripts. I can’t begin to convey to you how important it is to immerse yourself in the world of cinema. Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Tarantino, Abrams, pick any of great director and I can assure you they have an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. They have gone through probably hundreds, if not thousands of films, and broken them down scene by scene, shot by shot. Do that.
Then go make another short film. Write a script. Shoot it. Edit it.
Deep Focus In Brief syllabus: 25 movies, 25 screenplays, 5 books [For those with limited time or looking for a good starting point]
Go through that. Make another short film. Write the script. Shoot it. Edit it.
So to add one piece to mommyfollows’ great advice: Learn something. Do something.
GITS readers? What advice do you have for a budding 15 year-old filmmaker? Please hit comments and share your wisdom with this young person. Who knows. They could our next generation’s great writer-director.
UPDATE: Since I originally posted my response to this question in 2012, the situation has evolved. Digital technologies have made it even easier for anyone to make a movie. Web series have exploded on screen. The Internet continues to grow as a distribution platform.
The mantra “Do something” has never held more meaning than today. And if you want more inspiration, I just remembered that in 2009, I interviewed a then 17 year-old Emily Hagins who had by that time written and directed two feature length movies. You may read that 3 part interview below:
If 120 pages is no longer the norm, is there one and if so, what?
A question via email from Olov Lindstrom:
I was wondering if I could have your opinion on something. Maybe the answer to this is out there somewhere but I can’t seem to find it.
Right now I’d say I’m about 75% of the way through writing my first script. I got into this writing because I woke up one night after having a dream that was just such a great story that it just needed to be told! Before that I had no intention of becoming a screenwriter. I’m just telling you this to let you know from where I’m approaching the writing. I’ll be trying to sell the script, not myself as a screenwriter. Basically I saw the movie, now I feel everyone else deserve to see it too! 🙂
Right now it seems my script will end up being about only 80 pages. It’s a thriller/action story. Sure, I’ve kept it quite lean but I feel all the turning points, subplots, dialogue etc is in there. So.. is this good or bad from a selling point of view? Is 80 pages too short? Should I keep it like this or try to expand on it?
Interesting. A few weeks back, we had a reader question about whether it was okay to submit a 187-page script. We were fortunate to have several professional script readers and story analysts provide their thoughts in comments. Hopefully we’ll get the benefit of their wisdom on this query, too.
First things first, you should check out this post which goes into detail about several dynamics related to screenplay page count — how scripts are ‘shrinking,’ which genres have more / less page counts, and so on.
While acknowledging that we no longer talk about a 120-page screenplay as the norm, speaking personally I’d still say that if I got an 80-page script to review, I’d go into the read anticipating that the story might be pretty thin. Yes, I know that the movie Buried, which recently sold at Sundance to Lionsgate for $ 3.2M, had a script that was only 80 pages long, but look at that story’s premise:
Paul is a U.S. contractor working in Iraq. After an attack by a group of Iraqis he wakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it’s a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap.
There the issue is more about how do you sustain that premise for 80 pages? But most movies clock in with at least a 95-minute run-time. So I would still carry a yellow flag into my reading of any script that was only 80 pages long.
Now I can’t deny the possibility that your script could work perfectly at 80 pages. However seeing as this is your first script, before you start sending it out to agents and managers, I strongly suggest you get some feedback. For while you may think it works as is, perhaps other readers will find that they don’t get to know this character or that character well enough, the plot resolves itself too easily and would benefit from more complications and reversals, etc.
But I would not recommend to “try to expand it” just to pad the page count. Instead I would encourage you to perhaps spend more time digging into your characters, seeing if they have anything more they may want to ‘tell’ you. Maybe look at your plot again to see how many major plot points you have. How many sequences? If you have less than 10 of the former and 8 of the latter, maybe it would behoove you to re-open your plotting process to see if there are some twists and turns you might have overlooked.
Be clear: That process is not about trying to generate more pages, it’s about trying to surface more of the authentic story that could be lying there, waiting for you to discover it.
But at the end of the day, if you feel confident that your 80-page script works as is, then I say go for it. If the story is a strong one, Hollywood is not going to balk at an 80-page script.
Script readers and story analysts, what say ye re an 80-page script? What would be your first impression? What prejudices might you carry into that read? What would you advise Olov to do?
Reflections and tips about when you’re feeling blue creatively.
A question from Julian Edmund:
Scott, I’ve been reading your blog. I’ve been feeling out of touch with my creative energy as of late.Tell me, does this happen to you at all?
And how do you get through it?
Julian, that is a great question and I’m sure the entire GITS community (myself included) appreciates you having the honesty and courage to ask it.
In answer to your question, do I ever feel out of touch my creative energy: The answer is a decided yes. Sometimes writing is the last thing in the world I want to do.
Anything. Else. But. Writing. Please!
How to get through it?
First, consider this. You know how when you’re standing at the end of a long line, say at the post office or grocery store? Then when someone gets in line behind you, you feel better? It’s not like your wait is going to be any shorter, rather it’s a comfort knowing someone else is going to suffer like you? Well, there’s a certain amount of comfort that can be found in realizing that virtually all writers, indeed, all creative types suffer from occasional bouts of ennui.
In other words, feeling down in the dumps creatively is not unique to you or me.
Personally a great resource in this regard is a book called “Songwriters on Songwriting.” [I’ve written songs since I was 14]. When I read an interview with Paul Simon, Carole King, or Burt Bacharach, and learn that they have periods of time where they simply can’t write a decent song, even moments where they think they’ve actually lost their creativity, it makes me realize we’re all in the same boat.
I’ll bet if you go through the dozens of interviews with writers I’ve got archived on this site, you’ll find plenty of them who say the same thing.
So first thing: Really try to absorb the fact that all creative types suffer through periods of inspirational malaise.
A second thing I’ll do is ‘rattle my cage.’ This can take many shapes — anything from reversing my writing schedule (instead of writing at night, which is my natural instinct, I’ll write in the morning), go for a weekend away to commune with nature, or blind typing before every writing session — but the idea is to shake up my routine and by doing so hopefully break me out of my doldrums.
A third thing is to watch some great movies. Or read great scripts. Or lose myself in a great book. For me, there’s nothing more inspirational than seeing or reading a great story well told. It’s uplifting spiritually and creatively.
Be sure not to overlook an obvious consideration: Do you have a strong emotional connection to the story you’re writing? The simple fact that a writer feels a strong resonance with a story is usually enough to help pull them through tough creative times. If you’re not feeling inspired, Julian, perhaps it’s because you’re really not all that into the story you’ve chosen. Why not explore writing another story?
GITS readers, what say ye? Do you ever go into a creative funk? If so, how do you deal with it? Let’s see if we can’t come up with some solutions for Julian — and anybody else who might be flagging creatively just now.
Reader question from @farrtom via my recent #scriptchat appearance :
Should the antagonist think he’s the protagonist of his own story, or does that make him too relatable?
I provided a brief snippet of a response in the #scriptchat conversation, but there is an important point here worth delving into more thoroughly.
@farrtom: Yes, by all means, the Nemesis / Antagonist should think they are the Protagonist of their story. You know why? Because they are the Protagonist of their own story! Indeed, every character is their own Protagonist. They experience the story universe through their specific senses, their own perspective, and as a result develop their own world view.
So at the very least, you would be wise to spend time when developing your Nemesis character(s) to spend time with them seeing the story universe through their eyes. Sit with them. Talk with them. Experience how they relate to the other characters, what each represents to the Nemesis. The same questions you ask a Protagonist, e.g., What do you want, What do you need, What are you most afraid of, etc, ask of your Nemesis.
What is the value of these exercises? If you immerse yourself in the life of your Nemesis, you are much more likely to craft a multidimensional character, one a script reader may find compelling. And a more complex Nemesis who we can relate to and understand, even if we don’t sympathize with them, becomes a more interesting, engaging one, a more effective character in the context of the narrative, and an appealing figure for actors to want to play.
As to the second part of your question — does that make him too relatable — I suppose there is a risk a writer may so demystify a Nemesis, the character loses some of their power over our imagination. It’s one thing to be dealing with a mysterious Bad Guy/Gal, it’s another if the character has qualities which remind us of our pipsqueak brother. Then again, maybe not.
If your Bad Guy/Gal is worthy of being a Nemesis, they won’t be much like your pipsqueak brother at all. The more likely challenge in your work is to make the Nemesis more relatable. Why? Because when a script reader can find something within the Nemesis they can relate to, that shrinks the emotional and psychological distance between the reader and the Nemesis. That character is no longer an IT, rather they become a YOU.
I call this humanizing your Nemesis. It reminds me of that line from a writer I saw somewhere: “Even bad guys have mothers.”
So yes to doing character work with your Nemesis in which you look at the story universe through their eyes as a Protagonist.
And yes to digging into the Nemesis character’s inner life to find dynamics with which script readers and eventually moviegoers can relate.
That path will lead you beyond one-dimensional Bad Guys/Gals… into a world of complex, compelling Antagonist figures.
Reader Question: Do you have any time management tips on how to write while holding down a full-time job?
Some practical advice to engender productivity even while working full-time.
A question from Tom:
I’ve always believed that emulating those who are successful is a key to success. You say to immerse yourself in cinema and I agree. It’s also very difficult to do while working full time at something only vaguely related to writing. I’ve wondered for years how you do it. What does your typical day look like? What did your typical day look like when you wrote K-9, Trojan War or Snowbirds (i.e. when you wake, how long you write, how much you read, when you watch films, are you a Churchill kind of sleeper, etc.)?
I’ll answer this in three parts: (1) How I wrote K-9. (2) How I worked full-time as a screenwriter. (3) How to balance writing with work and family commitments.
How I wrote K-9
In the fall of 1986, I was performing as a stand-up comic, traveling up and down the state of California. When I started working on the spec script K-9, I booked gigs to allow me to maximize my time on my writing. So I’d work for 3 weeks, 7 nights a week, then take off a week, then back on for 2, back off for 1, and so on.
When I was traveling between gigs, I would carry a pocket tape recorder with me. So for example as I was driving up Interstate 5 from southern to northern California, I would work out the plot on tape. Then when I would wind my way back home to Berkeley where I was living at the time, I would transcribe all those notes into my wife’s Apple IIc computer (complete with the 5 1/4 inch floppy discs).
Then back down to L.A. to meet with my writing partner. Once we cracked the plot, I’d head off on the road again for more gigs, but then I focused on working out each scene, again using the tape recorder, and again transcribing those notes.
When it came to actual page-writing, I scheduled a week off and wrote as many hours a day as I could stay awake. I managed to write a first draft in five days and revised it in another two.
After receiving feedback on that draft, I did a marathon rewrite session, basically staying up for 36 straight hours, slept for half a day, then did one final polish. Sent it off and it sold in January, 1987.
So if you have a flexible schedule like I did, here are a few points to take away:
You can work on your story any time using some sort of voice memo device.
When you are ready to pound out pages, schedule a good chunk of time (1 week is optimum), then commit yourself to your writing — nothing else.
Make sure to take off a week or so between drafts to clear your head.
How I worked full-time as a screenwriter
I did that for 15 years in L.A. working on 30 paid gigs for studios and networks. On projects I worked on with a partner, we wrote in the afternoons, generally from 1–5. If we were writing pages, the goal was to produce 5–7 pages per day.
[Note: I always took care of personal business including exercise, emails, and all the rest in the morning, making sure to get all that ‘stuff’ done by noon].
If I was working on my own projects, I would do that at night (I’m a night owl). Also I would go away to Lake Arrowhead for 48 hour writing weekends. This was especially valuable for pounding out first drafts as I would typically knock out anywhere from 50–75 pages.
But as I described in this Business of Screenwriting Post — The Art of Stacking Projects — whatever paid gigs we had lined up, I always had a couple of things I was working on privately, one spec project I was researching, another I was either breaking the story or writing the pages.
So if you can work at screenwriting full time, a few tips:
Write every day.
Set a goal for the number of pages you need to hit each day.
Stack projects: Researching one, breaking the story of another, writing one, polishing another, etc.
Balancing writing with work and family commitments
Today my life probably resembles yours: I have my day work — teaching, consulting, mentoring, blogging — and my writing (currently working on a book). I’ve found I’ve had to completely alter my approach.
Nowadays the first thing I do in the morning is put in 50 minutes writing. It has to be before I do anything else because as soon as I check my emails or my calendar, I am down the rabbit hole, and lost for hours. I have so many things going on between teaching at UNC, teaching, consulting and doing private mentoring through Screenwriting Master Class, and GITS, if I don’t get my writing done in the morning, I never get to it.
That morning time is for actual page-writing. For research, brainstorming, and prep, I do that at the other end of my day, late at night when I don’t have any distractions.
So if you’ve got a day job and you’re trying to write, read scripts, watch movies, and all the rest, here are a few tips:
Create a master calendar with goals. Fix those to specific dates. Hit those deadlines.
Write every day (some things never change).
Stake out a consistent time during the day to write and stick to it.
Here’s the biggest tip of all: Download this app. It’s called Focus Buster. It sits on your computer’s desktop and gives you a 25-minute work block, then dings to give you 5 minutes to do whatever you want (e.g., check e-mail, stock market, soccer scores). Then start another 25 minute work session.
Given the sheer volume of stuff I have to do each day, this has been a godsend. It just makes you work more efficiently and keeps you focused.
How about you? What time management tips do you have?
Tomorrow’s question: What about writing for the web?
Even with the blurring of lines between the two, there still are differences.
NOTE: I originally posted this in December 2011. Even though TV syndication is still a considerable ‘thing’, with the emergence of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others, the movie-television landscape has changed and continues to evolve.
For example, what used to be called ‘mini-series’ and now often referred to as ‘limited series’ have made a comeback. In effect, they are long movies with an extended Beginning, Middle, and End. This opens up a whole other way to think about a story concept and universe per the question addressed below.
Still for reasons I go into in this post, there are some significant markers which should indicate to a writer whether they should write a feature spec script or an original TV pilot spec. Read on and your comments welcome!
A tweet from @beemarty:
Help! Seen any resources to help decide whether a story idea is better suited to episodic or feature? 🙂
A quick answer is to compare two numbers: 2 and 88. Two is the outside edge of how many hours long a typical movie is. Eighty eight is the number of episodes a TV series needs to hit to go into syndication.
Is the story you want to tell something that fits best into a two-hour time-frame? Or is it a story universe you can imagine mining for episode ideas over and over and over… and over and over and over… and over and over and over again?
Now this doesn’t mean that if you doubt your story idea has the legs to sustain itself for 88 episodes it should be a movie. A story concept has to work on its own to be a movie, it can’t just be a ‘not a TV series’ idea.
Likewise if you feel like you have too much story for a two-hour time frame, that doesn’t necessarily mean what you have is the basis for a TV series. A story concept has to work on its own to be a TV series, it can’t just be a ‘not a movie’ idea.
Perhaps what you can do is sit with the idea and try to envision as a movie, then as a TV series. Think about the movie trailer, the poster, envision opening weekend and you’re in the theater. Then conjure up in your mind a commercial for the TV series. What would the opening credit sequence look like? This should give you some clarity.
Another thing to consider: Protagonist metamorphosis. In a movie, the Protagonist typically goes through significant transformation, compressed in that special way only movies can do, taking the character from this psyche state at the beginning of the story to a very different psyche state at the end. In contrast, some TV Protagonists never change. And if they do, it’s a slow conversion process that occurs bit by bit, episode after episode.
Then what of your story universe, the specifics of the Protagonist’s work and life affairs? If, for example, you are considering a procedural TV series like “Law & Order,” does your story have something that supports the narrative device of solving a crime?
How about pitching the idea to some friends, then ask them, “Does this feel like a movie or a TV series?”
Bottom line: It comes down to what you feel in your gut. If you go through at least some of the questions and exercises above, my guess is your gut will tell you what your story is: TV or movie.
GITS readers, please weigh in on the subject in Comments. Have you had a story you had difficulty deciding between TV and movie? How did you sort it out?