ALTERNATE ROUTES: Backing Into Your Story – Screenwriting by Reverse-Engineering

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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ALTERNATE ROUTES: Backing Into Your Story - Screenwriting by Reverse-Engineering by Marty Lang | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

If you’re a screenwriter, you’ve had the moment when you write a great scene, and you can see it playing out in your head. The location is absolutely perfect, and you can hear the world’s greatest actors and actresses performing your text. It’s almost a rite of passage for a writer, that moment where you imagine your work in its perfect form.

Problem is, it takes moving heaven and earth to get your work to that magical place. And the bigger your story is in scope, the harder it becomes – assuming you can get it made in the first place. If you’re looking to get a script of yours made, I propose you try something I bet you haven’t done before:

Write your script in reverse.

I don’t mean actually write from the end to the beginning – watch the amazing film Memento to see how to do that – but rather, write your script based on elements you have access to, and bend your story to fit those elements. It sounds strange, I know, but it can greatly improve your chances of getting your script produced, and can actually help you infuse some energy into your screenwriting.


Script EXTRA: More Thoughts on Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay


Make your story personal

We’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know,” but when it comes to reverse-engineering a story, that becomes an imperative. If you have family or friends that inspire your storytelling, focus your story around them. Having those people around will help you stay focused on developing your script, since you’ll be able to observe them and ask them questions. This can also help you on a more practical level, too – they might actually become part of the making of the movie as well.

krishaFor a perfect example of this, take a look at the film Krisha, which won the John Cassavetes Award at last year’s Independent Spirit Awards. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults built a story around his own family, and the struggles they had with addiction. His aunt was addicted to drugs and estranged from her family. She would visit them on Thanksgiving sometimes, and one year, she showed up drunk. That incident became the spark for the story of the film. And when he actually made the film, he got many of his family members to act in it – and he shot the film in his own house.

“As soon as I started writing, I started planning out all the shots and the structure and how we would do this,” Shults said in a New York Times interview. “It was the only house I would make the movie at.”

Build your script around your community

When I was thinking about making my feature writing/directing debut, Rising Star, I knew the story had to be something I was familiar with, and passionate about. And one thing I always thought about was my work/life balance. When I started writing, I had been laid off four different times. I knew no employment was forever, and my company was laying people off while I was working there, so the threat of losing my job was always over my head. That stress led me to working three jobs, for fear of having somewhere to land if I lost one. My work/life balance was completely tilted toward work. So I decided to focus on that.

Once I knew what I would examine in the script, I started looking around to see if my community could help influence my story. I lived a few minutes from Hartford, Connecticut, the “Insurance Capitol of the World,” so I decided to make my lead character, Chris, an insurance adjuster, a buttoned-up, conservative fellow who is a slave to his job. He would meet his polar opposite, Alyza, in the film, a Bohemian, free spirited woman who follows all her passions. (This worked well, because unbeknownst to many, Hartford also has a thriving underground music scene.) They would be polar opposites on the work/life spectrum, and through their interaction, they would both come closer to finding a balance.

Once I decided the film would take place in Hartford, I drove around the city, looking for places that would make compelling locations, and that would support the story of the film. I wanted the film to include cultural landmarks, so I visited the Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe House, homes to two world-renowned authors. I also visited the grave of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens, who is buried in Hartford – and who was also a Vice President of The Hartford Insurance Company.

Going to these locations helped me firm up the plot of the script – and Wallace Stevens actually became the story’s key. When I visited his grave, I learned he had written all his work while holding down a day job. He was the epitome of someone with their work/life balance in equilibrium. I could build around that location, as it spoke to the central conflict in the story. And it ultimately became the location for the film’s midpoint scene, where Chris realizes his work/life balance is tilted too much in one direction. Visiting the Mark Twain House also inspired some scenes, and after talking with the museum director, we actually got permission to film inside! (The top photo of this article is actually a screenshot from the movie, on the second floor of the Twain House, outside Sam Clemens’ bedroom.)

This pre-writing location scouting can also do something very interesting – it can help you visualize what your scenes will look like before you actually write them. The opposite way it’s normally done, sure, but it can help you infuse specificity in your writing when you already know where scenes will take place.

Consider your local celebrities

No matter where you live, there are people in your community who are looked up to – they could be media personalities, thought leaders, political folks, even popular teachers. Those are people who know the story of your community, and they can be a great resource for material.

When I was writing Rising Star, I was also doing movie reviews for a local television station on their Sunday morning broadcast. I worked with the weekend anchor on-air for these reviews, and through talking with her, I got a lot of ideas for places to research, and people to talk with, in the Hartford area. (It also didn’t hurt that when the film was done, we were able to do segments about the movie to help bring people to local screenings.)

photo11This can be a huge help if you decide to make your script yourself, too. One of the most popular media figures in the Hartford area is a morning DJ named Gary Craig, and he’s also an actor, having appeared on films and TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and American Hustle. After seeing his work, I knew he’d be perfect for a role in Rising Star. So after writing it for him, I met with him and he jumped on board. We had a great time filming, our cast and crew had a blast meeting him, and when the film was done, Gary was kind enough to talk about it on his radio show, which was great publicity for us. Everybody wins.

When I started screenwriting, I was always told to let my imagination run free and think up locations that would perfectly fit the stories I was telling. But reverse-engineering your story with elements you can see and touch could bring a whole new dimension to your script. Give it a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you come up with.

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