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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Breaking Story

It's really the hardest thing to do. Talking to a friend today he shared how he could spend six months "breaking story" and still not neccessarily have it .

Normal. I said. I spent years and years breaking story on an original script which I finally wrote three years ago. I first thought of it - about 15 years ago.

There is no time limit to the process, no sundial to track the brightness of the imagination. Every story is unique, and has unique demands. Some will come quickly and form completely, some won't ever form at all. Why? How the hell do I know?

Okay, that was a joke.

I suspect it has to do with some things I've learned along the way.

And what I have learned is this:

To break story completely you need three things, and an addendum.

1) The Big Idea. This goes for an original, or for your take on a re-write, or hopefully the adaptation you're doing as well. It's what you bring to the project that thrills you, excites you, makes you gleeful every time you sit down to wrestle the bear. You need the idea that will inspire you, unlock your heart, make your mind thrilled. It will have: energy. It will not have: structure, arc, or sequencing.

That last bit is very important. The Big Idea is pure energy and joy, it's why we're all writers to begin with. Hey, here's this great idea! I have to do something with that!

You need that. It's the gas for your tank, the lightning in your clouds.

Hard to proceed without it.

2) Premise: You need to figure out how you put the lightning in the bottle. You need your premise - briefly what happens to whom, what it does to them, how it ends.

3) You need to arc out your realities:

Situational reality: what happens, to whom, when, where and how, and to what conclusion.

Emotional reality: the emotional place your hero starts - and why the story smashes him flat, will "kill" that version of him, forcing him to change into what he must become to bring closure to his situational reality.

Simple, right? Simpler if you can see it has parallel sequences that run in opposite directions. You can click here to see my discussion of it.


You may not want to do this. So don't. Every writer has their own process, this is mine. Some writers are completely intuitive - they find their stories through instinct and patience and the emotional bubbles that rise up through the creative fire that seem to guide the way. I've done that too.

The reason I do it this way is because of the



Good to have one. An excellent reason, and really one of the only reasons for me, that I produce anything. I'm not good at the five/ten/one page a day thing with no finish line in sight. Dates on calandars, looming meetings, looming phone calls, all these get me off my butt and defining and clarifying my big idea. I use everything else I've just written to help hone it from a cool notion to a refined rocket sled ride.

It may not work for you, and that's cool. Everyone has their own process. Share some ideas here. It will help others, or tell me why my ideas are flat. It all helps all of us and our process.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Workshop On

I'll be giving another screenwriting workshop in a little less than a month, on Saturday April 22nd. For more info or to see what the last group felt of being stuck with me in the same room for hours on end, click WORKSHOP on the sidebar. Pre-registration is required. Thanks!

For those of you attending the big to-do at the Scriptwriters Showcase at the Universal Sheraton from April 7-9, I'll be a presenter on a panel there on April 9th.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How To Survive The Inferno?

A reader asks:
"How do you keep your own personal sense of respect for the
screenwriting craft, and what you do, intact in an industry that seems
to believe screenwriting is little more than 'idea vomiting,' which
takes no time, little effort, and can be executed by anyone with
fifteen minutes to spare?

I’m coming off of some form of development hell – which ring of hell, I
can’t be sure – but, boy, am I feeling beaten up...How do you handle this?"
Well, welcome to the fun world of professional screenwriting! Doesn't it sound grand? Come on everyone! I've got a barn and some costumes, and some unemployed development executives who can give us all the notes we want!

They didn't coin the phrase "development hell" to be poignent, or clever, it was undoubtedly uttered by someone standing on a window ledge ten stories up.

Before you get into this line of work, like any good fighter, you should know what to expect in the ring. It may not stop the pain, but it gives you a fighting chance. So here are some things to know about the fight you're about to enter (or have entered repeatedly).

First of all - Develpment Executives:

1) Are scared shitless that the story is fucked up and won't work and they'll be fired (eventually). This is before you're hired and after you hand in. Even if they believe in your script, by the way, a hint of doubt at the top and watch how fast they're ready to put the end at the front and twist the middle inside out.
2) Wittingly or unwittingly they need to prove they are worth their paychecks and so will generate a mountain of endless notes, corrections, thoughts ideas, a cascade of shit which is mostly unneccessary. In all that, there may actually be some good ideas. Use them!
3) Have no loyalty to you, but to the "picture". You're not there to make friends, you may, but it won't matter if you do. It's a bit like Don Juan syndrome. They're "dating" all these "hot chicks" (scripts they have in development) and will dump you the second you go cold.

And it's not nearly as much fun as it sounds, by the way.

Tools for dealing with this?

1) Their fear? Trust your creative source, you are the only one who knows how to tell your story. Be confident and grounded in that. They will always shake your tree, but they can't pull up the roots. Fear is contagious, so be prepared and don't let it in. You may be asked to trash all your ideas and start over. What do you do? Walk away? Well, you can actually. But if you decide to stay - you need to find a way to become re-inspired with what's in front of you. Why? Because you're a story teller who wants to play on the public stage and this is the price. Always go to your source, the place where your ideas play, always start with re-working the character so the rest of the situations and the new ones work again. Otherwise it's all just bumper cars and emotional emptiness.

I have a friend who's been in development eight years on a script. He's done about 14 drafts. He's let them cut out his most favorite stuff, and he continues to find inspiration in new ways to deal with the situations they ask for. He complains bitterly, frustrated as hell, then he takes a deep breath and goes down deep - below all that mindful upset - and finds his source, the place in the ocean of creativity that's still full of life and goes to work from there. What does it get him? His picture just started principle photography in Van Couver.

2) Too many notes: It's your job to hack through notes and say "yes" and "no" to what comes down the pyke. In fact, they want you to. You have to pick your battles, you can't say no to everything, but you really need to refuse the moronic ones. If not - and they insist - and you have to do it - you have to give it your best shot. That means re-working the story from the inside so that it makes sense again on the outside the way they want it. It means going to character and their emotional reality - and finding that change they have to make - and making the situations you've been asked to put them in make sense in a new way - and all that good stuff. If you don't start there, it won't ever play.

3) They're no friend of mine: Charm, civility, humor, betrayal, manipulation, guilt, seduction and all that before your meeting ends. There are a lot of clever people out there good at getting under your skin to get what they want. I did a re-write for Joel Silver in which I was hired in the room on my pitch, and left feeling I was way behind and already handing in pages late. How the hell did he do that? I had to go home and re-set myself.

Keep it professional, always present your best work on time - no first drafts please - even when they say "hey it doesn't have to perfect" (it better be your best effort or you're probably fired). Don't share works in progress. You need your chance to make your chemistry come to life and ignite and transform and then they get to see it.

As a cake maker said to my wife and I when we were shopping for our wedding cake. "You're only as good as your last cake."

Here too. Don't run the marathon on your work, just to get exhausted at the end and stop writing. Finish the job.

And in the end, don't write it all from your mind, write from your heart.

How do you keep your heart opened when you're beaten down? You don't take it personally. You can't or you'll drop dead from a heart attack at 38. You are a story teller. You open up and let it come through you, and you have found that thing that actually nourishes you as you do it.

That's all you need to remember.

Read Your Own Contract

Well, that's not a brilliant piece of advice, nevertheless it's important. It's something I shied away from for years as I had brilliant people to do that for me - who could the discuss legalese in normal English. I look at a legal contract and it literally looks like streaming code from the Matrix. My instinct is to run and literally hide, put my fingers in my ears and start singing, do anything but have to sit down and read that!

But I've come to learn with time that part of owning your own creative authority, is also owning the business side. Show-Business, after all, right?

Well, today I sat down and read my contract on my adaptation job. I read it carefully, painful as it was, I just kept taking deep breaths and reading the same sentance over and over until it finally made sense (kind of like looking at the 3-D optical illusion - you stare long enough you finally see something.) Well, I found out that one of the numbers on my payments was wrong, and my agency didn't catch it (third pass on the contract, too). Now, they're brilliant too and probably would have caught it, but maybe not. And if no one did and I signed it - trouble. There's a certain feeling of empowerment when you call up and say - hey this number is wrong - and they say - hey, you're right.

Own your authority to be creative, and own your authority to deserve to earn. They're both equally important.

Monday, March 20, 2006

On Structure Part 2

Okay, so I promised part two on structure and here it is.

(You can check out part one a few posts down – but I copy here the last part of that post which is the jumping off point for this one):

"What ends a chapter? What ends an act break? How to nail a story that’s either linear, or has multiple story lines, flashbacks, flash forwards, what have you? We have to examine structure a little further. There are two realities in your hero’s world. The “situational” reality and the “emotional” reality and they have to intertwine.

Situational Reality: the physical world, ticking clocks, ticking bombs, car chases, kidnappings, fist fights, heists, trysts, invasions, defense, offense, the attack, the counter attack, the ambush, plotting, hiding, sneaking, losing, wining.

Emotional Reality: the lovers, the haters, the betrayers, the needy, the desperate, the dense, the out of touch, the shut-down, the over-sensitive, the hopeful, the funny, the hurt, the sad, the healing, the dying, the redeemed, the lost, the lonely, the saved.

Each reality has it’s own arc. How do they intertwine?"

The situational reality arc: Is start to finish. Hero usually has a goal, or a goal is thrust open him (her/them/you get it). Then, inevitably, the hero heads towards it, willingly or unwillingly, until they have to face it. And then the conclusion you determine is reached: the hero wins or fails, he lives or dies. It's like a great game of chess.

The emotional reality arc: oddly, can be viewed as finish to start. In the sense that the hero you start with will no longer be there when the movie is over. A new hero will stand in his shoes. You are “starting” with the finished version of this hero, one that your story will hammer down and smash apart in your brutal mill, until he's a broken ham sandwich in a bag, and quits, and then a new hero will have to be born, will have to rise, to survive your story to its conclusion – or, more to the point, to face the conclusion as a new person, at a new energy level so that they have the heart to conclude the movie. And this should be like an emotional rush, the thing that gives you chills, that makes you laugh and cry and leave the theater with an expanded heart and an expanded sense of self.

Now, granted your variations may break this rule, and that’s fine. Rules are made to be broken. Just make sure you know the rules first. You'll find hero stories where the hero refuses to change (Leaving Las Vegas) and dies because of it. And that’s very powerful (because we are supposed to change). There are heroes that don’t change as events change around them on an immense scale (The Pianist) and that’s powerful because they are a “witness” character, and we have a vicarious experience as we watch the journey through their eyes without getting distracted or wrapped up in their own emotional arc. There are heroes that don't change, but change others because of their lighthearted ability to stay above the heaviness dragging everyone else down (standard comic hero, Bill Murray in Ghost Busters, Eddie Murphy in Trading Places).

But what's important for story telling, in general, is that these two realities I've talked about track through time, through four acts of your story:

1) Your hero is alerted to the adventure, refuses it, enters it, gets trashed by it, nearly killed by it, survives and rallies to overcome. Sure other stuff happens, but that's the simple line.

2) Your hero has an emotional issue, the adventure demands he faces it, he denies it, then he tries to face it, the old him fails at it so a new him sparks to life, he tries the new self on, then both the old and the new him fail emotionally and he’s ready to throw in the towel, then an emotional re-birth, he re-enters the journey less for himself and more because it’s the right thing to do, a selfless act, where he’s ready to die for it (physically and emotionally) and that surrender of self is what give him the edge (I like to say “the heart has hope when the mind fails” and that act wins him his desire.

If you track these two realities side by side as you tell your story, you stand a very good chance of telling the best version of your story that you have.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

On The Treatment

On the treatment

The treatment is a very difficult document to write.

As often as you will hear “hey, can we just get a few pages on this?” you’ll notice the executive asking isn’t raising their hand to do the writing. And by the way, if they do, and you see it? You’ll probably cringe. It makes a cheat sheet look poetic.

They’ll also add in:”and make it just as exciting as your pitch/the book/the comic we’re ralking about so that anyone can understand it even if they haven’t seen it before.”

Great. Anything else? Make it out of liquid metal and have it’s own independent intelligence? No problem.

So you sit down to write, and realize that the treatment is a very difficult document to write. I’m trying to write one now, as the first step in a contracted feature deal.

Because there’s a good reason not to write a treatment if you don’t have to. The moment you put anything down on paper, it gives more reasons for they buyer to say “no.”

How do you avoid that?

Stay in touch with what excites you about your idea. That energy must go into your treatment. But on page 50 you may realize you’re being a little too detail oriented. Time to prune.

Drop extra visuals, drop dialogue, drop cute “c” and “d” storylines. Be clear on your character and only the large arc of the story.

So you’ll want to include the situational reality: your hero starts at point A – and in the next five pages take him to point Z.

And the emotional reality: the hero is a shy, buttoned down opera singer who will arrive at a new emotional reality (an outspoken opera singer?) by the end of the five pages.

Show story flow, the drive, the major obstacles, the villain and his plan, the hero’s low point, and the conclusion.

Give an artificial boundry to keep your pace – you want to talk about four acts of your story, each with a midpoint, give yourself a page to talk about each. Very challenging. Then do it again and give yourself half a page. Don’t sit too long in any one section or you will unbalance the whole thing.

One of the reasons the term “beat sheet” came about, I’m sure, is that Hollywood needed a way to get writers to shorten their treatments and just highlight the “beats”. Because ironically, Hollywood doesn’t like to read.

That’s pretty much your job here, a treatment needs to
Use your dramatic tools to keep it alive, bright and interesting.

Good litmus test: A treatment for a comedy should be funny. A treatment for a drama should be dramatic.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Workshop Was Great

Hey, thanks to all I had a really great time!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Structure

This question from Vince DC: On the subject of structure.

“I've just finished the first draft of a feature screenplay and I'm struggling with act structure: when the act should end as concerns page count. This draft runs 130 pages -- yes, too long.

Lew Hunter is a stickler for precise act breaks: Act 1 should end on page 17, etc. Other script gurus take a more organic approach, saying the story should dictate the structure as long as there is rising action and it grips the audience.

My Act 1 runs 35 pages and I'm really trying to avoid "killing my babies" because what happens there is crucial to the rest of the story -- bet you've heard that one before. I can blame trying to make the script vertical for adding 5 or so pages to that act. The rest I can blame on me not being able to find a more succinct way to set up my protagonist's journey into Act 2.”
The structure issue is more crucial to the screenwriting form than to any other form of writing, except the play. Perhaps because they are both living forms that need to experienced in real time and people have an internal clock that has been trained by their culture in what to expect. A novel can be 350 or 650 (like the one I’m adapting now) and both be excellent stories, a great read and feel like they have great internal structure. Short stories only have to be short, no specific length required. Poems, comic books, essays, non-fiction books, sure they all have structure but the requirements are loose.

But screenplays live or die on their structure, I believe, And I’ve read scripts that have sold, that I didn’t think had great writing, but they all had one thing in common: GREAT structure. My scripts that have sold? Great structure.

Having said that, I will throw in a caveat that I abhor strict adherence to any artificial structure system. Because by the very nature of its artificiality it makes one incredibly “mindfull” and that can kill creativity. But that’s my inherent anti-authority issue speaking.

There – easy answer right? So what do you do?

Be creative and in flow with your work, feel the movie you’re in, and the breaks should speak to you themselves. You should know when you’re running long. If not, go out and watch more movies.

I take a cue on structure from a friend of mine who has always told me he feels when he’s writing an original that he has to write the “book” first, then find the screenplay. It all comes out as screenplay of course, draft after draft, and when he’s amassed what could have been a book by sheer page count, he usually “gets “his script. The journey of discovery however, is unpleasant for him by its sheer volume of pages never used and lost scenes (as he tells it). It’s why this guy hates writing originals. Too brutal for him, he loves adapting.

I like originals. And I like work-for-hire. I don’t mind the process (aside from the sleepless nights and the hair pulling). What falls to the floor I put in a huge file and raid regularly year after year. No writing is ever wasted by my reckoning. It’s either making you better, making your work better, or creating scenes that will live again someday in another piece.

So, back to structure:

Think of the screenplay as having four “acts”. Now we’ve all been told to death that a screenplay is three acts. There is act one (30 pages), act two – which is that huge chunk in the middle (60 pages) and act 3, (30 pages).

What the F? Why is act two twice as long as the others? What kind of symmetry is that? Well, it’s not, and it’s kind of ridiculous. What is there just hasn’t been categorized properly. Now some have recategorized it. Many many years of writing have revealed to me (at least this is the way I see it) that a screenplay is four acts.

So I believe that the 60 page act “two” that is talked about, is really two 30 page acts. You’ll hear about the “mid-point” of act two – well, it’s an act break as far as I’m concerned. So a script is four acts. And each act has it’s own mid-point.

Easy right? Of course not.

You’re stuff may not fit. And what about flashbacks and stories told out of time where the story telling is fractured?

Well, like any good book, the story keeps cruising along, but a real page turned closes a chapter and kills you with the unresolved tension. You have to keep reading and turn the page of that next chapter.

So think of the screenplay as a book. And think of ending a chapter every 15 pages. That’s a rough guidline, but a good guideline. Page count? I believe in keeping it tight. Clean crisp story telling, even in a character drama in a drawing room.

As for the page hits – yes, I think act one ends in the page 25-30 zone. I hate giving a specific page count as anywhere in there is fine, earlier will serve you better. If you have to lose some of your darlings to get there, It’s worth it for a better read. Because the better read will sell your script.

But what ends a chapter? What ends an act break? How to nail a story that’s either linear, or has multiple story lines, flashbacks, flash forwards, what have you? We have to examine structure a little further. There are two realities in your hero’s world. The “situational” reality and the “emotional” reality and they have to intertwine.

Situational Reality: the physical world, ticking clocks, ticking bombs, car chases, kidnappings, fist fights, heists, trysts, invasions, defense, offense, the attack, the counter attack, the ambush, plotting, hiding, sneaking, losing, wining.

Emotional Reality: the lovers, the haters, the betrayers, the needy, the desperate, the dense, the out of touch, the shut-down, the over-sensitive, the hopeful, the funny, the hurt, the sad, the healing, the dying, the redeemed, the lost, the lonely, the saved.

Each reality has it’s own arc. How do they intertwine? All this on the next post.