Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

Skinny up, Pardner

Posted: January 26, 2011 in screenwriting
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I recently discovered the most amazing, most effective diet in the world. Severe mouth pain. When your mouth hurts bad enough, you look at every morsel of food before you put it in your mouth and you ask yourself, is this worth it? You have to be REALLY hungry for the answer to be yes.

You might only get a couple of bites into something, and the answer will change.  Suddenly and decisively to NO!

And as I looked at a bottle of water and debated taking another painful sip or risking dehydration, I thought, this is like writing.

Or I should say, writing should be more like this.

It’s a bad habit a lot of screenwriters in particular have. Because we know that the dialog is the part of the script that will ultimately get the most attention, because we have heard that producers won’t read anything else, because the dialog might actually come out of someone’s mouth exactly the way we write it, our dialog ends up bloated and fat.

Take for example, the typical love scene. In the script, the boy and the girl gaze into each other’s eyes.


You are the most amazing woman I ever met.


You are also amazing and I love you like a butterfly loves to flutter. Like the moon lives to shine. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to sit near you when you watch football. I want to wake up to you. I want to be two old people walking through the park holding hands.


You are so beautiful. I want our children to look like you. But I’m worried that the terrorists might find us hiding in this cabin. I don’t care if they kill me, but I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.

Yes, this movie is a romantic action film. Of course.

In my real life experience, romantic encounters are all about what isn’t being said. In my experience, some of that internal monologue is internal because I am worried that I might say the wrong thing. So must everyone else. Some of that internal monologue is, “I like him. Does he like me? I don’t want to say anything, I don’t want him to feel pressured. Maybe I could say this…NO! That sounds desperate, even in my head. Ok, maybe I’ll just smile. Yeah. Smiling. There’s the ticket.” Also, to get a guy to even admit he has emotions requires supernatural forces.

The fact is that real people don’t say everything they think. And those that do are always getting into fights and then they have to go back and apologize for what they said or explain that they didn’t mean it how the words seemed to be, but this other, more acceptable way.

Movie dialog is of course, not real speech. It is heightened speech. But it could benefit from the things that are NOT said as much as the things that are.

What if I wrote a love scene that went more like this:





(after a long moment of silence) I guess yeah.



He busies himself shaking out a blanket and draping it around her shoulder. He is very careful to get it securely around her.





They look into each other’s eyes.  His hands are still on her shoulders.


It’s cold.



They lean closer together.



(he clears his throat)

It must be a cold front.

They kiss.

See? Wasn’t that nice? Fewer words, more space for atmosphere and feeling. It’s ok to leave your audience and your characters and yourself not quite stuffed to the gills with words.

Also, I know that I failed to use proper screenplay formatting. The blog doesn’t have the tools to do it, and I don’t have the time to count spaces, so deal with it. You knew what I meant, anyhow.


Cowboys and Indians

Posted: December 15, 2010 in screenwriting
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Novels vs. Screenplays

When I was in grad school, my classmates had a bad habit. If they knew someone had ever written a screenplay, they would look at a story and say, “This was written like a screenplay.” What they usually meant was, “This doesn’t have a lot of detail.” Because they all assumed screenplays lack detail.

It was a mistake because we were all so new in our careers that the kind of habitual writing markers of novelists and screenwriters had yet to be ingrained in any of us. And because screenplays can sometimes be different from fiction only in the formatting. And because I say so.

So what is the difference? Why can’t every book be made directly into a movie?

Because I write both, I can tell you the difference to me.

In writing novels, an author has access to the entire inner workings of every character to cross the page, and the author chooses who to reveal. The author can choose a point of view that restricts access. HOWEVER, an author can’t hide thought that fall into the point of view she has chosen. You can’t write from the first person perspective of a homicidal maniac, and just leave out his thoughts of “Kill. Kill. Kill.” It is dishonest, and your reader will feel tricked.

In a screenplay, however, you have no ability to express a characters thoughts, unless you go crazy Avant Garde and have a running voiceover of thoughts. Even movies that claim mind reading characters are still terribly selective about the mind reading they do. You’re control over point of view is much more limited in screenwriting. In a novel, I can tell you what a character thinks is happening. In a screenplay, not so much.

In a screenplay, you can write in directions for the actor to reveal the character’s thoughts, but it is usually along the lines of an action. Sam frowns. Sam frowns angrily. Sam slams the door shut in a fury. But that script passes into other hands and some mopey actor frowns wistfully instead, and the director likes it, and suddenly, the entire thinking of that character is altered, even if the actions stay the same.

So even if you made your best effort to write a character who reveals their thoughts, ultimately, you don’t have much control over it. Better to focus on actions and dialogue, the things you have better control over. The actor changes the nature of the frown, that’s just how it goes. He changes a punch in the face to stabbing with a broken bottle, and that is a rewrite. Which they can do, too.

I’m not so much concerned about the ultimate lack of control most screenwriters deal with because I don’t write for hire. Which sounds like a self-aggrandizing way of saying I’ve never sold a screenplay. But I’m also not trying to. I write screenplays so that I can direct them. But also, I consider the interpretations of the actor to be a contribution, not a detraction. Most of the time.

When I write screenplays, I leave space for the actor to interpret. I expect to collaborate. When I write novels, I try to fill those spaces with nuance and implications, because I am responsible for everything.

Recently, Jessica Alba did an interview, and one of the leaked quotes got all the screenwriters in a tizzy. Something about “good” actors never follow scripts, they just make up whatever they want to say. I’m not here to help spread Jessica Alba’s “ideas.” If you care enough to look it up yourself, you can bask in her unending brilliance.


My friend sent me this link to one screenwriter’s response. It’s a calm assessment of her assumptions. A pleasant read. Short.

If this is a real quote, it is arrogant and dismissive of the work of screenwriters, but it is nothing new, and in fact, a typical Hollywood attitude towards screenwriting.

In Frank Capra’s autobiography ( a tremendously interesting book) his wife says that she always recognizes the screenwriters because they are all so unhappy.

Maybe because they are bitter about their place in the pecking order. Maybe because everyone is mean to them all the time. But screenwriting is hugely valuable to movie making.

Do you know how many times people have come to me and said, “I have a great idea for a movie,” and the even more idiotic, “You can have it for free. I just want to see it get made.”

Hey, everybody. Guess what? Ideas are worthless. Even the government knows that; you can’t copyright an idea. What is valuable is the effort and skill that turns an idea into something. And not everyone can do that well, though directors and actors and producers always think they can without any practice or training.

One last thought, again related to the great Frank Capra. There is a story (apocryphal) that Frank, in an interview, was waxing poetic about the Capra touch and how he made hit movies, and other general statements of arrogance. When his long time screenwriter, Robert Riskin, read the interview, he sent Frank a present.

Frank received his script sized package and eagerly tore it open to find 120 blank pages and a note that read, “Put the  famous Capra touch on that!”