Saturday, September 09, 2006

REVEALED SECRETS… of screenwriting


In an earlier post on Perfect Formatting, Mickey Lee mentioned a review I did for him last May, which I thought I’d share. The highlights, at least. (You can remove your story if ya like, Mickey.)

I hope these comments prove helpful.


…You remind me of me when I first started writing. You probably had some ideas about your story and where it would lead. You sit down to write. I'll bet you're the type who doesn't want to know what happens next because you want to enjoy the surprises in your story as much as the audience will. Alfred Uhry told me once that's how he writes. He wrote "Mystic Pizza" & "Driving Miss Daisy." He hasn't done anything since. So, anyway, you wing it. You're pleasantly surprised by your efforts, so you post it. Then the reviewers yawn and ho-hum all of your hard labor, and you're left frustrated.

Consider all the thousands of writers and stories that have passed through the site before you, writers who winged their stories just like you, and are now left with no reward from all of their hard work. It's scary. We're nearing a century of cinema, and the process of just sitting down to wing a story just doesn't cut it anymore, sad to say. When people read your story, they will likely think of ten other movies similar to yours and probably better and they will walk away disappointed. The fact is, a new breed of screenwriters must emerge, a group of individuals who are devout students of the craft. It isn't enough to have an original idea. You must execute your story with skill and craftsmanship. You must be an exceptional writer, offering up scripts with exceptional grammar and formatting. You must learn the tricks, the principles of storytelling, and set out to master the craft. Those are the ONLY ONES that'll make it. You must read hundreds of other amateur scripts, figure out what's wrong with their stories, and remember to never make those same mistakes. And your story has to be better, deeper, richer, funnier, more exciting, more imaginative, than all of your predecessors and your competitors.

Here's the process. Take heed my words or suffer the consequences. You have to do an outline first. It's not negotiable. You must do it. You have to craft your three act structure. You have to make sure your story and structure is original and exciting from beginning to end. You have to make sure you have turning points throughout Act Two. All stories must have twists. Then you have to focus the rest your energies, 75% of all of your creative labor, on the final climax. You must make sure you deliver the goods at the end of the story. You have to obtain an almost God-like knowledge of the world you're creating so that anyone can ask you any question and you'll have an answer. While you're doing all of that, you have to create character development sheets. You have to construct all of your main characters, write out their histories, understand them, give them unique voices, which you can hear in your head backwards and forwards. You have to give them goals, a strategy to meet those goals, as well as unique thought processes and depth. It's not about you anymore. It's about them. Even in a light-hearted comedy-horror piece like this, you have to illustrate an ability to write characters with some depth. So what is depth of character? I've said it before and I'll say it again. It is NOT a character arc. You may recall that Charlie Kaufman argued famously against character arcs in "Adaptation," and in some cases he's right. Since when did James Bond ever have a character arc? Character arcs are good and necessary in most stories but not always. So, back to my point, what is depth, dramatically speaking? It's a character that has a contradiction in their personality. The character acts one way but is really another and gets put into a position where he/she is forced to make a choice. It's the hero with the weakness. It's the "neutral" Rick in "Casablanca" who eventually has to take sides in the war. It's Tony Soprano with all of his "principles" and "family values" in an underworld of criminals. Characters must have contradictions. Even those in "The Chosen One." The dialogue must be fresh, crisp, and cannot ever linger. There must be subtext. Somebody says one thing but means something else in order to get X. You have to show good management of the details. If you emphasize something at the beginning of Act Two, it better have a point to it and a place somewhere else in the story. You have to plug all as many holes in your story as humanly possible, because if TriggerStreet members are good at one thing, it's pointing out the holes in your story.

So when you open up your writing program, you should never be looking at a blank page with dread and thinking, "What should I write?" You should be thinking, "Oh my God, how am I going to get all of this story crammed into 120 pages?" When you get to a scene, you should not be asking yourself, "what should this scene be about? Where should it go?" Instead, you should be asking yourself, "how do I get from point A to point B really quickly and sound natural and use as few words as possible?" A writer is a leader. You have to know where you're going, lead the reader confidently in the direction you're taking them, because you know that it sets up the big finale which they will love. You have to embrace that challenge of mastering the craft and molding your story in an exceptional way that will get you noticed. And when you're done with a first draft, you have to mold it, and shape it up. You have to chop off everything that doesn't belong including excessively flowery action lines... You should have so much story that you don't have room to be funny or fancy in the action lines. Then you have to hone in on what you know are the weak parts of your story and obsess about how to make them better…

…Of course, this script is better than Bryan Singer's early scripts. When he was at USC's School of Cinema, one of the scripts he wrote was, "Inbred: The Family That Lays Together Slays Together!" You should take comfort in knowing that your script is vastly superior to his. I know what you're thinking - "Oh my God! Mystery Man referenced Bryan Singer! He must be Kevin Spacey. See? I told you!" No, I'm not Kevin Spacey. But I am better looking. Hehehe...

Best wishes,

-MM

4 comments:

wcdixon said...

Man ... MM can be rough on the scribes. Glad I'm not really a writer. Or Kevin Spacey. I'd be doing my best Buddy Ackerman on yo' ass...

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, I was known for being tough. I've lightened up since then.

At the time I wrote this, I was preparing for a writing assignment, and I was pretty burned-out from reviewing. I had somehow amassed a huge following of people who read my EVERY review on TriggerStreet. After every review, people would send me emails asking me questions about every detail I wrote. It got really crazy. When Mickey asked me to review his story, I thought I'd just lay out the whole process. I don't think the writing's all the great here, but hey, a discussion about process is always beneficial, isn't it?

Mickey Lee said...

I thought this was a great review. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to cut and paste it into reviews that I'm doing on TS. But that would be against the rules...woudln't it?

Mystery Man said...

Mickey, you OFFICIALLY have my permission. :)

-MM