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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Advice on Writing Screenplays

I'm gonna ramble a bit.

I don't normally give advice on writing screenplays. Like, who the fuck am I to do that? Well, I'm technically way more qualified than a lot of hacks who do it...

I was a script reader for nearly two years for a company in Los Angeles. I did it all from the comfort of my house. I got the job through the AOL screenwriter message boards, of all places. A working screenwriter on the boards that I had known for a while recommended me to a production company who was looking for readers.

Only problem was that I had never done any coverage for any screenplay. Coverage is the detailed breakdown on a script, and at the end you would put whether you Recommend The Script, Pass on the Script or Pass on the Script/Recommend Writer, which means you'd request another script from the writer.

I lucked out and found some coverage from a book--did a sample coverage on one of my own scripts. I figured I'd not only try to get the job, but maybe they'd even request my script.

I got the job, but they never requested my script.

This was back in 1998ish. The only internet around was the dial up kind. Like 28.8K shit. Yeah, the kind that made the beep handshake sounds when connecting.

Anyway, they started mailing me two scripts a week. I'd read them, do coverage and send them back within seven days. Then repeat. They paid me around $50 per script.

And the craziest part? I must have reviewed around 200 scripts and I never recommended one. I think I recommended a couple of the writers, but none of the scripts were very good.

At the end I was actually prepping to shoot my first flick when I quit. But one script they sent me was SO bad that I sent back the coverage with the line "This script is so bad I couldn't get past 10 pages. Don't pay me for this one. Also, it will be my last script as I'm going off to shoot my own movie." You can find a sample of the coverage I did here, but I removed the title of the script.

So that's one of the reasons I feel a little more qualified to advise about writing scripts. Add on the fact that I've been writing for 30 years, have written over 30 screenplays, and have read well over 300 scripts at this point.

My advice is going to be pretty vague really. I just figured, as I get asked on occasion, that I would pass on what books I think are the most helpful for screenwriters. At least, they were the most helpful to me.

1) Scriptshadow Secrets - This is the newest one I've read and it's chock full of incredible advice using some actual great movies, rather than the normal horseshit you read where they dissect Citizen Kane and Chinatown.

2) Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach - Again a newer one, but one I'm drawn to more and more. It's actually a pretty short book but I'm more and more convinced that using the sequence approach can make finishing a screenplay so much easier.

3) Story by Robert McKee - Probably the most important one to start with if you're completely green

4) The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri - This is an older book that doesn't deal with screenwriting, but instead gives some very valuable advice on writing in general. Certainly applicable to screenplays.

5) Writing for Emotional Impact - Pound for pound probably the best book I ever read on the subject of writing. I try to read this as often as I can to keep the principles fresh.

Books I don't recommend:
You'll notice, if you know anything about the books above, that they're not much for formula or things like THIS has to happen by page so and so. I think that not only is that helping to make movies feel very by-the-numbers but it's dumbing down the art form. So that's why these books don't get a thumbs up from me.

1) Save The Cat - Listen, the core principle is sound. Basically let me save you the money on the book by telling you that you need to make your main character likeable. PERIOD. So if he saves an animal or person in the first 10 pages, he will be likeable. But there's a million other ways to do it, and the other things the author tells you to do on this page and that page are just dumb and simplified. Use the sequence approach instead, which basically tells you to break your movie into 10 or so sequences, generally of whatever length you'd like, and your movie won't feel so by-the-book. Not only that but it will be easier to write and STILL be a better movie.

2) Syd Field's Any Of Them - Syd was the screenwriting guru, and his the first book I ever read on writing screenplays. (he wrote a few books but at the time the only one he had then was Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting; A step-by-step guide from concept to finished script). The problem is that a new screenwriter will read this and really start to feel like he's in a box. It will constrain your creativity as you try to follow all the rules. Just don't.

3) How To Write A Movie In 21 Days - Just complete crap. I think this is the only writing book I ever threw away after reading.

So those are the ones I'd recommend. You gotta understand that in this day of advanced technology...where your average Joe Schmoe can pick up a camera and shoot a decent picture because of how good the technology is...and then edit it because computers are so cheap...and add cool effects because Andrew Kramer's way too generous with his genius...EVERY facet of creating movies is being made easier and more simple for your average person.

Except writing. No computer program, no technology is ever going to make creating a great screenplay easy. That's your ace in the hole if you're trying to compete now. You've got to become a good writer.

And that takes a lot of writing.

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