THE SECRETS OF SCREENWRITING – PART TWO

This article originally appeared in MovieMaker magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

3. DON’T BE A SLAVE TO STRUCTURE. Aristotle and his successors prescribed an exact form for drama, but there are countless successful examples otherwise, providing that each film can be judged unto itself before it is judged according to the pre-set standards. (Take a look at THE FUGITIVE, where the entire film could be considered Act 2, or SMOKE, which is a series of vignettes, or SWINGERS, which is almost all Act 1.) The point is, an underlying structure is as valuable as it fits and assists your story–not the other way around. If your story falls naturally into three acts, then you should know and understand and be able to utilize three-act structural principles. But if your story does not, then cut loose any preconceptions that a script must have three acts.

4. USING “BACK STORIES.” Several of my writing associates, when they become stuck for more than one writing session, recognize this can only be if they don’t know their characters well enough. So they’ll sit and write biographies of their main characters, concentrating on what the people did in their lives before the movie started. By the time they’ve finished, they can come up to present time and figure out exactly what the character would do next. Of course, many writers write back stories before they start the script. but the back story can serve as a log-jam buster, too.

5. DISCIPLINE. The most common denominator among succesful writers is that they are highly disciplined. They have an invariable “writing time” every day or every week. They never wait for inspiration. They treat it as “a job of work” (to paraphrase John Ford speaking about directing Westerns). They believe that in exchange for the luxury of working at home, they owe it to themselves to “show up” everyday – whether or not they feel like it. One author I know gets up at 6 a.m. each morning, six days a week, has a coffee, lights a cigar, and sits at his desk until 10 a.m. At 10 a.m sharp, he ends his writing for the day and lives a regular life. (He’s a salesman for a multi-level marketing company to ensure there’s always some cash coming in.) He then doesn’t return to writing ‘til 6 a.m. the next morning – even when he gets an idea. He is willing to jot down a note during the rest of the day, but he never “sits down to write,” except at his agreed-upon time. He told me, “If I waited for inspiration, I’d never write, or I’d write so irregularly that I’d never finish anything. Or, if I were on a major hot streak, then I would sit at the typewriter all day and not do my sales. Money would run out – and I’d have to leave the script to go back to normal work and then really lose the spark.” Another writer I know keeps a mountain cabin about an hour from the city where he lives. He goes there every Friday night and returns Monday morning in time for his regular job. He’s so excited to get there that he writes all weekend, stopping only to eat, take short walks, and get a bit of sleep. He considers this writing time to be sacred and allows nothing to stand in his way. A woman I’ve worked with started a writing club which meets every other week. Members report how many pages they’ve written of their current scripts. If they don’t meet their quota (set by themselves, but announced each meeting to the group) for two sessions in a row, they can’t come back to the club until they’ve caught up. By the way, the support group, by policy, makes no creative evaluations of each other’s work. They only set and announce targets. Another writer told me that he puts in his writing time even when he feels empty or drained. He has many times spent his whole two to three hours sitting in front of the word processor and not writing a single word. But at the end of the daily time, he gets up and leaves and considers that he has worked that day. He tells me that he knows if he does it enough days in a row, the words eventually start coming, and then they pour out of him. I hope you can see that the process of writing begins with the decision to write, and the recognition that writing is a form of work – creative and playful as it may be. There is no one way to do it. The writers I mentioned never get “writer’s block.” A footnote: I recommend you do not show your pages to anyone until you have a completed first draft. An off-base comment can throw even the best writer into a spin. Have the strength of your convictions and your desire to tell stories. If you’re interested in the tale, others will be, too.

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