Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Frustrating Firsts


Remember the first time you typed the magical words “FADE OUT”? That feeling of accomplishment of having finished your first script and feeling ready to take on the world? Amazing, wasn’t it? So, for my first blog post in far too long, I want to address something that’s been bothering me of late – the debut screenplay.

Why has this been bothering me? Because in the 21st century, anyone with a laptop and a bootleg copy of Final Draft has decided that they’re a screenwriter, and they expect that their first 90-page (or, more usually, 72- or 175-page) effort will sell immediately and they’ll be catapulted to the Hollywood A-list. And it happens once per million scripts. In fact, your chances are only mildly slimmer of winning the lottery than they are of selling a debut script.

As a big internet trawler (it’s not ‘procrastinating,’ it’s research), I come across a lot of forum/discussion posts by folk who’ve written their first script and are asking how to sell it. Don’t waste the effort is my advice. Just open a new window, type FADE IN and start again. Even starting the post with “I’ve just written my first script, it’s AWESOME and AMAZEBALLS! Now, how do I get it to Tom Cruise?” is a massive waste of effort. Tom Cruise isn’t going to read your first script unless, if you ever become ‘lucky’ enough to make an impact on this business, become a major director and slowly befriend him, you decide to show it to him as a bit if a laugh twenty years from now.

See, your first script is a lot like those other milestone firsts in life: the first step, the first kiss, the first car, the first home, the first time you had sex… all felt like they were awesome at the time, right? Except you fell over after your first step, the first kiss was sloppy, awkward and too wet, the first car was a rust bucket that cost you £200 and you only got 100 miles out of and the first home was actually a dingy, damp room in a house that you shared with a crack addict and an unemployed musician who was “just working at Starbucks until I find a new drummer, man.” And the first time you had sex… well, I mean, I was pretty awesome the first time, but I know for most people it was probably the most exciting thirty seconds of their life before one of them had to use the time-honoured phrase “I’m sorry, that’s never happened to me before…”

See, it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the first scripts every screenwriter – aspiring or successful – ever wrote was terrible. Mine would be charitably describable as a steaming pile of dog shit on a hot day. Most people have similar experiences to relate.

So kids, don’t sweat the first script… just get it done, put it in a draw, and use it as a learning tool. Zepplin wrote a lot of crap in the early days, too. And there’s a reason you’ve never heard any of it. The first five scripts (minimum) are your apprenticeship. They’re where you apply the lessons you learned from the last screenwriting book or blog you read. Sure, if the premise is good, they might one day see the light of day in some form; maybe you win an Oscar, remember the script you wrote about the Clown with AIDS when you were nineteen and decide to play with it again. I don’t know. But selling takes time. Don’t panic, don’t worry and – for the love of Christ – don’t go on the internet telling people it’s the greatest thing since Citizen Kane. Those of us who know better just treat such claims with mild amusement – and that includes every experienced writer, director and producer on the circuit.

I’ll be back very soon with an update on the irons I have in the fire, but until then… look after yourselves, and each other. (Springer ending!)

Kriss

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March 28, 2013 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Opening a dialogue…


As I promised in my previous post, Back To Basics, I’m going to be taking a look at methods of constructing great dialogue. This may be as much a learning experience for me as for you guys; although I’ve been told I wrote strong, believable dialogue, it’s always come naturally to me. I don’t mean that as a boast, either. Some people find writing beautiful-yet-economical descriptive easy, some find getting pacing right is their forté, I have a strange aptitude for dialogue. So in this post, I’m going to try to tell you all how I do something that I’ve never really thought about. I’ll also hit Google towards the end and see what tips I can find from the pros.

Yes, I'm being ironic

I keep getting e-mails from WordPress telling me to use pictures. So here's one.

I guess the best, most simple advice I can give you on writing dialogue also serves as solid advice for life in general. First and foremost: Listen.

Listen to the people around you. If you’re writing a script about teenagers, go find some teenagers and hang out with them. Obviously, you’re not necessarily going to have slumber parties – I hope – but try volunteering to do youth work. It’ll be both spiritually and creatively rewarding. Likewise, if you’re writing about the elderly, try an old people’s home.

For more technical dialogue, find people who’ve lived the life and talk to them, interview them. If your protagonist is an ex-Marine, go find some ex-Marines to talk to. If they’re a doctor, see if your GP will meet you (off the clock) to advise you. Most people are only too happy to help. And if they aren’t, a credit will usually bring them around.

Never stop listening to the people around you. How do they express themselves? How do different nationalities, cultures and generations phrase things? All of these things will bring your characters to life, but you can’t do any of them without opening your ears!

Another thing that comes up often in screenwriting is word economy, especially in your description. But did you know that it can be a useful tool with dialogue, too? The rate at which you give the audience information can make or break a script.

Cut any and all meaningless dialogue. Greetings, unless they’re conveying subtext, are useless. Nobody asks each other how they are on TV unless it’s supposed to be awkward or they’re dying. Don’t have your characters constantly gossip mindlessly – you aren’t writing for The Hills. Or if you are, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Screenwriting talent is not a requirement for writers on that show, so long as you can write endless streams of nothing.

Avoid massive amounts of expository dialogue unless absolutely necessary. For a good example of what’s ordinarily considered wrong (tough works in context), check this out:

In the film, it works because it’s meant to be brilliant, utterly unnecessary exposition for comic effect. If you did this in the middle of a drama, it would seem completely out-of-place for all the wrong reasons.

The final piece of advice is probably the oldest int he book, though you should note that it applies much more in film than TV: Don’t have a character say something you can show. Or, as it’s usually phrased, “show, don’t tell.”

As an extreme example, consider this: I can have a long monologue where the character tells the audience that he and his buddy Jack were traipsing through the jungle. It was hot, humid, they were carrying a massive weight on their backs. Jack had been shot in the legs, it was dark. They’d lost their platoon and then the Vietcong appeared, surrounding them.

Or, I can write this:

INT. JUNGLE – FLASHBACK – NIGHT

BOBBY and JACK stumble through the jungle, weighed down by equipment and sweating from the heat. Jack has a pronounced limp, blood pours from a gunshot wound in his thigh. In the distance, GUNSHOTS can be heard. As they enter a clearing, Vietcong soldiers appear, surrounding them.

BOBBY
Oh, shit.

So, that’s it for my advice on dialogue. It’s not the most advanced breakdown of the art of dialogue I can provide, but it should give you an idea of what you need. But let’s see if I can find those quotes from experts…

What the professionals say:

“The real secret is to remember that people will do everything they can to protect themselves from hurt or betrayal or embarrassment. So no one wants to let anyone but their closest friends know what they’re really feeling. Therefore we use humor, cynicism, and other defense mechanisms to protect our feelings. Truly put yourself into the beingness of your characters and write from their point-of-view, rather than have them spout things you want them to say. Characters will then surprise you – say things you didn’t expect or do things you didn’t expect them to do. This is when characters really come alive.”

Glenn Benest (as interviewed by Jeffrey Berman)

“…imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign language with the subtitles turned off. What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? There’s a classic drama exercise in which actors have to stage a scene speaking only faux-Chinese. That’s what you’re looking for at this stage. Not the words, but the texture.”

John August

“Remember when you first met your in-laws? You were most likely trying to project an image of being friendly and respectful, right? In order to get their approval. Or how about when you first met the banker handling your mortgage? Truthful. Serious. Grown up. In order to get the loan. We all have an agenda and when we converse, we get to use our words to paint the picture of ourselves we want others to see. So do your characters.”

Julie Gray

“Great dialogue does not come from having a good ear for dialogue. It does not come from having some innate gift or talent for writing dialogue. It comes from this: knowing your characters so well that you know what they will say and how they will say it when faced with specific people, situations or events.”

Rob Tobin

“Your characters are part of the mis-en-scene. The same can be said for their dialogue which must be true to the mis-en-scene, and reflect the character’s reactions and thoughts. Unless for some special artistic or creative purpose, your dialogue should always engage your character within the mis-en-scene, moving the character forward.”

Michael Daniels

“Dialogue should be as short, or crisp, as possible. The standard dialogue line is three inches long. Three of those lines is about as long as will play well. When it is longer, it needs to be focused, broken up, or polished. “

Dorian Scott Cole

“While your narration will (and probably should) be written in grammatically complete sentences, your dialogue will not (and probably should not) always be so. The reason for this: People don’t always speak in complete sentences.”

Robert Piluso

So there you go; some advice from me, some advice from the pros. If you want more, you can click the links in the names to go to the full articles I lifted those quotes from, or hit Google yourself. See what you can find. If it’s good, why not drop it in the comments section for everyone else to read?

That’s all from me for now. Until next time…

Kx

September 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the ‘write’ path…


God, I hate cheesy puns, but having walked five miles home in the wee hours of this morning, I’ll hope you’ll forgive me for not exactly being on top form today.

After taking a depression-induced week off from writing anything at all (I may blog about that over at AC at some stage) I’ve decided I need to get my head back in the game, because work is piling up. I have four reviews to write for OMS (two of my reviews from last month can be downloaded from that page, actually – they’re in The Sampler) and I need to get my head back into the novel, as well as writing this blasted one-sheet, which I really mustn’t keep putting off.

The novel, it seems is going really well. I’ve just come to the end of my prologue and already I’m starting to get inside the head of Detective Reyes and feel my way into her story. As I’ve said before, I’m not a planner. I have no idea where the track is leading at this stage – I know the basic outline of my story and a few of the key characters. I know my prologue and I know my opening chapter at this point, but everything beyond is a mystery. Incidentally, if I get the opening chapter right it’ll be a real tear-jerker for some.

Without spoiling too much, I hope, I’ve gone into extensive research about the procedures for a police funeral – the pipes, the last call… I was tearing up just reading about it, let alone when I started actually listening to the calls on Youtube. If I can create one tenth of the emotion I felt while doing the research on the page, y’all are going to hate me and I’ll have to get the book sponsored by Kleenex. Seriously, you’ll be drowning in tears, not choking them back.

On the screenplay front, I’ve been strongly considering adding a few more pages to what I feel is going to be my magnum opus, Trailer Park Blues. It’s a working title – one I’m working on – but it should be a really special piece if I get it into the right hands. I actually have a fairly good idea who those ‘right hands’ are, too. When it’s finished, I’ll see if I can attach them to the picture (and talk about that process extensively on here, I’m sure) and get the ball rolling on things.

Actually, talking of getting the ball rolling on things, I was contacted recently by a producer from LA about the possibility of coming on board with an Anglo-American sitcom. It was literally just a touch-base e-mailing session, but it’s given me some hope for my week.

On a final note, I’ll be adding a few more works to 26 this week, because I kind of have a hankering to drop some deep emotional thoughts on paper. Hopefully I’ll finish it before I have to rename the collection 27!

I’ll be back with some lessons as I think of them. In the meantime, I’d like to recommend a friend’s blog to y’all. I say ‘friend’ – it’s not like we hang out and such, but she’s a fantastic writer I discovered through WP – C-C Lester’s blog, The Elementary Circle, can be found by clicking on the link. Go show her some love, especially if you’re into YA Fiction. And, let’s be honest, who isn’t?

She recently posted the prologue and first chapter of her book, Mercury’s Child on there. And it’s phenomenal. After reading it, I cannot wait to get my hands on the finished book.

Have fun, kids.

Kx

June 2, 2011 Posted by | agents, Development Diaries, Novels, Nuevo Oro, screenwriting, Trailer Park Blues, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment