It can take ages for a screenplay to become a film and of course a lot of times the production never happens. Nick Hornby, whose most recent adaptation is Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, deals with it by using the time in between to write his novels.
An article written by Joe Berkowitz for fastcreate.com points out, "what once seemed like a dealbreaking burden [the delays] has turned into a boon for the prolific author's productivity."
Yes, he does have the advantage of being a best-selling novelist and Academy Award-nominated (for An Education) screenwriter, but I think there's a useful lesson in there for the rest of us as well, namely to figure out how to make the downsides of the business part of our craft work for us rather than against us.
Hearing back from agents and publishers can take just as long as the gaps and delays experienced by screenwriters. I think the lesson is to have another project ready to go when we send one out into the real world...which also helps cut down on the amount of time we spend thinking about the first project's fate!
It's important for writers to understand what directors do (and vice-versa). One of the current top directors is David Fincher and this video analyzing what he does and how he does it is well worth 8 minutes of your time:
It's also interesting to think about how you can do some similar things when you write a scene in a novel or screenplay. For instance, how the reader pictures the scene is influenced by which actions you describe for each character, how you move the characters around, even the order in which they speak (including who has the last word).
Here's a little animation (under one minute) to promote the next series of screenwriting workshops I'm offering via Raindance in London, for five Monday evenings starting on March 3, 2014.
You've heard it many times before: keep a notebook. But do you? If not, maybe you will after hearing why director Guillermo del Toro keeps a sketchbook:
"What's great about a sketch book is, you put drawings in it and then they're there. You carry them with you and consult them and thieve from yourself. There's something about that guy at 28 or 35: he's smarter or fresher than you are at 40 but he's somebody who understands you perfectly, because it's you.
In a sketch book you can distill your compulsions, because I believe every artist is just the sum of his or her compulsions. Keeping a catalog of those obsessions through the years, you steal from someone who is almost electrically alive with those same compulsions at age 21. That makes the dialogue very fluid. I revisit the books before every project."
The same thing applies to a writer's notebook. Of course these days smart phones make it easier to write or record or photograph anything you want to add to your collection.
Want to write an animated feature film? I'm going to reveal the Easy as Pie three-step formula, no charge. First I'll give you a clue. Here are the stories of three animated features (the first one hasn't been released yet):
PLANES: A small-town plane dreams of one day competing as a high-flying air racer. However, he has two strikes against him: He's not built for racing, and he's terribly afraid of heights.
TURBO: A snail dreams of winning the Indy 500, but he has two strikes against him…he's slow and he's not a race car.
RATATOUILLE: A rat dreams of becoming a chef, but he has two strikes against him…he's a rat and…actually, being a rat is enough.
See the pattern?
Step One: choose an animal or object that could be turned into merchandise kids will want.
Step Two: Give them a goal totally incompatible with their nature and abilities.
Step Three: Have them achieve the goal. (In other words, the little plane shouldn't crash and burn, the snail shouldn't be stepped on, and the rat shouldn't end up in a rat trap.)
You need more? OK:
Give them a mentor (who might kick the bucket along the way in a scene that will bring a tear to the eye, but not before passing on his/her/its wisdom)
Put them through a bunch of harrowing obstacles (harrowing in a funny way, of course)
Have them nearly give up at some point, but then be inspired to redouble their efforts (this could be a pep talk from the mentor, alive or dead, or the goading of an opponent, or seeing the disappointment of a love interest).
Porkie--the little piglet that dreams of becoming the Prime Minister of Israel
Finny--the little shark that dreams of being a lifeguard at the kiddie pool
Bristle--the little toilet brush that dreams of being the President's moustache.
Watch for them at your local cinema!
I just saw the Tom Cruise film Oblivion which looks great but, in my opinion, doesn’t really work on the story level. What are the lessons to be learned from it (I don’t think any of these points involve serious spoilers):
Having said all that, I don’t think Oblivion is a bad film, just that it falls far short of what it could have been if the people concerned had spent as much time and effort on the story as they did on the special effects and the rich look of the film.
In his book, Life Itself, the late film critic Roger Ebert recounted the greatest writing lesson he ever received. It came from a slightly older colleague, Bill Lyons, when both were sports columnists.
After watching Ebert try again and again to come up with a great first line, Lyons advised, “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?”
Sound advice for any writer.
This is also the week that Ian Banks revealed he has cancer and will not be with us much longer.
Two wonderful voices, going or gone. As we get older parts of our extended lives fall away—the authors whose books we love, the actors we look forward to seeing in another film, and most sadly the friends and family members we somehow assume will be around forever (or at least the tiny bit of forever granted to us). I suppose we should be glad we’re not the ones who have fallen…yet.
What do we learn along the way? Well, I like what Ebert learned:
“Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. ... I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
1. Write a great screenplay in one of the genres they favor (see the previous post). This spec script (meaning you're writing it on speculation--that is, for no money upfront) will be what opens doors for you. It has to be the best you can do.
2. The first set of door it must open is the one that leads to getting a US agent to represent you. Some UK agents do have arrangements with US agencies so it's possible to get in that way, but it adds another layer.
Most of the bigger agencies say they don't look at unsolicited scripts. That means you have to find a way around that, either by getting their attention with a great query letter in which you offer to sign a release form, or getting a recommendation via a writer they already represent, or by some clever strategum you figure out yourself.
(For help with inspiration, see my book "Do Something Different," published by Virgin Books--it's not about writing but it contains 100 case studies of how people used clever, inexpensive ways to market themselves and their products, and you could adapt some of those to this situation.)
3. Tell the agent you frequently go back and forth between wherever you are and Los Angeles (that's where the agent should be, ideally). This will make him or her less hesitant about setting up meetings with you and any of the producers who show interest in your script. Be ready to finance that first trip yourself.
4. Don't assume that once you have an agent everything will be done for you. You still need to educate yourself about who is buying what, who is who at the studios and production companies, etc. Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, although both suffering in the current shift away from print advertising, are still your best bets for US information. Keep the agent informed of any initiatives you plan to undertake yourself--it has to be a partnership. The agent doesn't want to be embarrassed by approaching someone on your behalf only to find you've already been there and got a rejection.
5. Finally, you need a load of good luck and good timing.
Hey, I didn't say it was going to be easy.
Many novels and screenplays feature protagonists who change as a result of the trials and tribulations they undergo in the story.
Dorothy discovers there is no place like home,
Scrooge learns to be generous and warm-hearted,
George in “It’s a Wonderful Life” realizes his life does have meaning.
Such stories appeal because we like to think change is possible even if we find it hard ourselves.
This change over the course of the story is called the character arc. The trick to making it work is to match the size and speed of the change to the events in the plot.
The most common mistake is creating big jumps in changes that don’t feel motivated enough. It takes a lot of pressure to create massive change. In our examples, Dorothy went (apparently) to another world, Scrooge was confronted by three ghosts and time travelled, and George faced a life and death decision.
It’s also a good idea to build in some setbacks. Change seldom is a straightforward process--remember, Scrooge backslid between the visits of the first two ghosts.
The challenge of revealing change is harder for screenwriters than it is for novelists. The latter can include descriptions of a how a character realizes something. In a screenplay all realizations have to be turned into things people do and say.
A useful method is to draw an arc (like a rainbow) and at the left end jot down what the character is like at the start. At the right end note what he or she is like at the end. At points on the arc note what changes and what triggers each step of the change.
Of course not all characters do change. Some try but fail, and often that leads to a tragic ending. Othello cannot overcome his jealousy, King Lear cannot overcome his vanity and pride, and Emma Bovary cannot overcome her hunger for a more romantic life.
Others, like James Bond and the heroes of many action books and films, stay basically the same over the course of many adventures.
(SPECIAL OFFER: for a friendly guide to take your from your idea through to publication, get a copy of my book, Your Writing Coach. The UK Kindle edition is on sale for only £2.99 for a limited time--you can get it here.)
Storyteller Bobette Buster gave a lecture at this year's "Do Lectures Festival" in Wales on the nature of storytelling. She came from a place where storytelling was natural, went on to Hollywood and worked in development and teaches how to create stories for cinema.
The lecture is 23 minutes long, so get yourself a coffee or tea and settle in. If you don't want to watch the video, I've written some of her key points below it.
To create a great story: Take us to a world we've never been to before. Take us on a quest. Show us how the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Cinema has evolved into the story of transformation.
The key moment in a story is when the character has to cross a threshold, leave the world in which he is comfortable, and do something he's never done before. Follow the character's greatest fear and magnify and expand the moment when he seizes control of his life.
It's often by daring to examine your own darkest times that you will discover your best story. What was the one moment that you had to leave your comfort zone? Even if it was a failure, the fact that you survived could embolden someone else to take their step.
Some of the greatest stories are tales of people who finally wake up and dare to resist the status quo and take a step toward their true destiny.
(If you want friendly guidance in telling your story, get a copy of my book, "Your Creative Writing Masterclass." It gives you writing advice from some of the greatest writers of all time and helps you apply it to telling the story you want to tell. It's published by Nichoals Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
When your unpublished manuscript is about to be made into a movie, surely publishers will snap it up, right?
Not necessarily. On the Huffington Post, Rex Pickett, author of Sideways, tells the entertaining if, for him, harrowing, story of the progress of his novel. It starts:
“In my last blog I left you with the following: my Sideways novel had been turned down by the publishing industry through my indefatigable Curtis Brown, LTD agent, on a second round of submissions -- even, shockingly, after Alexander Payne had optioned it and it was major entertainment daily news that Artisan Ent. had greenlit it as a $10 million film.”
I can’t resist quoting one of the first rejection letters Pickett got from a senior editor at a major publishing house: “Sideways is nothing more than a glorified screenplay, and if it was made into a film it would stink to high heaven with the rot of Pickett's writing.”
Unfortunately for Pickett, Payne then decided to do another film, About Schmidt, first. After that, Payne and his writing partner adapted the book and Pickett’s new agent submitted the novel again, to 20 top publishers (bringing the submission total to 100). Instead of the hoped-for bidding war, they got 20 rejections.
The agent persisted and they got an offer: $5000 from St. Martin’s Press…who immediately told Pickett he should hire a line editor to go over the manuscript…
I won’t continue, you really should read Pickett’s fuller version of his adventure, but if there ever as evidence that William Goldman’s line, “Nobody knows anything,” applies to book publishing as much as it does to film production, this is it!
As Pickett points out, the novel was faithfully adapted into a film and won every single screenwriting award that a writer could win, including the Oscar, and is now enshrined in the WGA Theater as one of the 101 Greatest Scripts of All Time.”
(Interested in writing screenplays? See my other blog, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com)
A good screenplay or novel needs some glue, by which I mean something that connects and holds together the people whose fates you wish to connect. The less possible it is for them to escape, the more conflicts you can pile on and the more plausible the emotional intensity of their predicament.
The two most-used kinds of glue are family and work. It's not impossible to get away from your family but it's certainly not always easy. The same goes for work--sure, you can quit a job but if you have nothing else lined up or likely and no money saved, that's not easy, either.
There can also be emotional glue between two people in conflict--co-dependency, for instance. Probably the best dramatic example is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in which George and Martha's love-hate relationship gives them both something to live for.
Recently I saw "Carnage," and while I thought the actors were good (especially Christoph Waltz) and there were some good amusing black comedy moments, it just didn't make sense that the other visiting couple would stay there once things got unpleasant.
It would have been relatively easy to create a device to keep them there. For instance, the power goes out and there's no way back down to ground level because the elevators aren't working. Instead, the lure was "oh, come back and have a cup of tea."
It's possible that we are to think that neither couple is willing to leave until they have convinced the other of the correctness of their position, but that certainly doesn't ring true for the Waltz character, who is in the middle of covering up a potential crisis for the pharmaceutical company he represents and is rather bored by this charade of handling things in a civilized manner.
The film is based on a play ("Gods of Carnage") by Yasmina Reza, which won a Tony. Reza and director Roman Polanski worked on the screenplay together. She also wrote "Art," another story designed to expose the pretentions, hypocrisy and smugness of the upper middle class. With both of these it's hard not to suspect that they are designed to make the audience feel superior without much danger of turning its view inward.
Leaving all that aside, from the perspective of crafstmanship I think the main lesson of the film is not to forget the glue.
(For more tips on plotting and characterization, check out "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available now from Amazon and other booksellers.)
One way to come up with an interesting plot is to reinterpret something that already has worked. Of course this has been done many times with modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, the works of Jane Austen, and soon a version of Moby Dick in which the whale is a spaceship! And let’s not forget the books that added zombies to Jane Austen’s genteel world (actually, let's forget those).
I'm not talking about plagiarism, I'm talking about finding a structure that has stood the test of time, and a universal situation. I've done this very loosely with something I'm writing in which a patriarch calls together his family because he's dying. Yes, there are elements of King Lear--although of course you don't want to follow Shakespeare's structure too closely, it tends to wander.
Here’s another example (he reveals his source right at the end of this short clip):