Details are HUGE

Conventional wisdom says, “Write what you know.” But in my humble opinion, this statement is incomplete. A better version could be expressed as, “Write what you have explored extensively.” Because through sufficient exploration, a perceptive screenwriter will uncover certain details that give a screenplay an authentic look and feel. Such details make characters, their dialogue, and the world they live in appear genuine, believable and real to the reader. Those rare screenplays – packed with such details – are frequently the ones that sell, get produced, and become great films.

Of course, exploration for today’s aspiring screenwriter should not be limited to thinking merely about a current project. Serious attention must be paid to learning as much as possible about the craft and business of screenwriting if success is to be achieved at the professional level.

When I was an aspiring screenwriter, I realized how much I needed to learn. So, I started my own extensive exploration by reading hundreds and hundreds of screenplays. I got heavily involved in the Scriptwriters Network and Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. This led to me interviewing hundreds of film and television working professionals, including writers, producers, studio and network development executives, directors, actors, assistants, agents and managers. I became a story analyst at Fred Roos Productions, producer for Francis Coppola and Sofia Coppola. Through these varied experiences, I began to understand how all those details of Hollywood’s intricate jigsaw puzzle fit together.

Today, I see how my Hollywood journey of exploration has taken me full circle. As a script consultant, I often speak on panels about the craft and business of screenwriting. Many in Hollywood are passionate about different causes. My passion is to help other writers to raise their professional standards and for them to make tangible progress in their screenwriting careers.

Steven Zaillian

Steven Zaillian

I recall one of my past interviews that relates directly to “exploration of details.” Several years ago, I was fortunate to interview both Steven Zaillian and Joe Mantegna during the 10th anniversary screening of the film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. I would strongly advise anyone serious about screenwriting to study the works of Steven Zaillian, regarded by many as one of Hollywood’s most talented writers. Zaillian won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the Steven Spielberg-directed masterpiece, Schindler’s List. John Travolta starred in the film, A Civil Action, written and directed by Zaillian. If you haven’t read Zaillian’s screenplay, Searching for Bobby Fischer, then you really should. The entire script is a series of those tiny “details” that form one of the best screenplays ever written. In fact, Emmy®-nominated actor Joe Mantegna said, “If I had to list three of the best scripts I’ve read in my life, [Searching for Bobby Fischer] certainly would be one of them.”

During the interview, Steven Zaillian explained how the script Searching for Bobby Fischer was created. “It was exploration,” he stated. “You can hopefully learn and find authenticity in the process of actually developing the story.” Zaillian didn’t know anything about chess when he first received the novel Searching for Bobby Fischer from producer Scott Rudin. But he became fascinated with the chess world, and the idea of exploring the relationship between fathers and sons, and what makes a good parent. As he explained, “The most important thing that gets me through the process [of writing the script] is having a belief or feeling of what the story is about. For me, the mechanical process of developing plot is to start with that core idea, then it gets a little more specific as I break things into action and Acts. Then I begin developing the characters. Things get more and more detailed as I go through the story. My first draft will capture 90% of those details.” Like many professional writers, Steven Zaillian does TONS of research before writing that first draft. The true art comes from determining which details to include that best tell the story. In the case of Searching for Bobby Fischer, those selected details produced pure magic.

Let’s examine one scene and learn from Steven Zaillian’s brilliant use of details. Detail #1, The father doesn’t want to hurt his son’s feelings. Detail #2, Reversal – The son doesn’t want to hurt his Daddy’s feelings. Detail #3, Another Reversal – phone books are removed from a chair.

               INT. KITCHEN - MOMENTS LATER - DAY

               Putting on his own coat, Fred watches his wife Bonnie at the
               stove pouring herself a cup of instant coffee, all but
               ignoring him.

                                        FRED
                         Yeah, I know, I should've let him
                         win one.  I gave him every
                         opportunity.

                                   	BONNIE
                         He wasn't trying to win.

                                   	FRED
                         Come on, Bonnie.

                                   	BONNIE
                         What? It doesn't matter.

                                   	FRED
                         No, say what you mean.

                                   	BONNIE
                         You don't get it.  He doesn't want
                         to beat his daddy.

               Fred has to laugh, but the look on her face says it's true.
               He sighs and takes off his coat.

               INT. LIVING ROOM - MOMENTS LATER - DAY

               Josh emerges from his bedroom wearing a coat and cap, ready
               to go out.  His father's lining up the chessmen again.

                                   	  FRED
                           One more, just for fun.

               Josh checks with his mom with a glance.

                                   	  BONNIE
                         It's just a game, Josh.  It's okay
                         to beat him, you won't hurt his
                         feelings.

               Fred rolls his eyes.  Josh sighs and approaches the table.
               He lifts the heavy phone books off the chair and places them
               on the floor.  He sits down, lower now, at the same level as
               the chessmen, and peers through them intently.  Fred glances
               across at his wife, a little taken aback by the position his
               son has assumed. Ominously, she raises an eyebrow.

Wow, what writing. But the filmed version is even stronger. Instead of Josh merely “placing” the heavy phone books on the floor, the child actor deliberately tosses the heavy books from the chair, causing them to crash with a THUD onto the hardwood floor. Actor Joe Mantegna’s brief reaction shot is priceless. The father had lovingly placed the phone books on the chair so his son could see better while sitting on them. But now, it’s the father’s turn to see reality; he is about to be destroyed over the chessboard by his seven-year-old son.

With just a few well placed detailed lines of dialogue and action, Steve Zaillian demonstrates powerful mastery on the page. Such writing should be the goal of every screenwriter. The right details will make YOUR screenplay stand out from the thousands of scripts that get submitted to Hollywood each year.

I’d like to suggest a related exercise. Think of your favorite movie. Then, see if you can locate the screenplay for this film. (It’s most likely available for free online somewhere.) As you go through the script, page by page, remember those “details” that made you love the story. Then notice how the writer makes those details come alive on the page. When you return to working on your current screenplay, you might be inspired to keep digging for undiscovered details that could still be added to your story. Those tiniest of details can sometimes create the most compelling screenplays.

Finally, please let me know if you found this article helpful. I welcome topic requests for future articles as well. Happy rewriting!

14 thoughts on “Details are HUGE

  1. Carolyn

    The devil is in the details, eh? We make choices. We act on them. We interact with people, objects and space. You’re right, that’s the color of life. Thanks for highlighting the details of vivid writing 🙂

  2. Alan Duncan

    James– great article coming from a guy who knows his stuff. Excellent example as well. You’re absolutely right that it’s the little details that make a script memorable. Hope to read more from you.

  3. Barry J. Moskowitz

    Hi James, In 1972, I was offered co-screenplay and television script writing from Patrick McGoohan. He literally offered me a partnership. To both my chagrin and regret, I declined his very generous offer which was made after both an extensive in-person interview with him and his reading of my stage-play. Kudos to you, James: your advise is spot-on in regard to those tiny details which give the nucleus of the “atom” its mass – its essential connection to the movie-goer. In a sense, those details are parallel to the jigs of a puzzle which accumulate in both the sub-conscious and conscious minds and emotions of the audience, evolving with verisimilitude into the essential thematic picture. I should add that I emphatically agree with you, James: explore, explore, explore. May I share my approach to writing both screenplays and novels. I begin with both a consciously and sub-consciously expressed theme. With this central idea in mind, I arrive at a skeletal sense of the story from beginning to middle to end, keeping in mind that the message dictates the writing, not the converse. I begin writing, introducing the audience to the essential conflict and some characters. The mysterious thing which happens for me is that these first characters ultimately introduce me to new characters and sub-conflicts which I did not originally envision: like real [reel] life when those you’ve met introduce, or involve you with others, even if you don’t want to be. The beginning process of exploring information and details, then, helps me to write with verisimilitude and passion. Miraculously, the evolving script gets intertwined with those planned characters and details, leading me into the unplanned. 72 in two-days, I am still writing – “The game’s [Still] afoot, Watson!” With admiration of your perceptions and amiable spirit, Barry [Pseudonym: Rhys Mandon]

  4. Michael Canon

    This article can make a difference in any writer’s screenplay, no matter how established. Thank you, and Zaillian was a really good choice. And for a future topic, how about “What makes a Screenplay be a Good Story, Well told.” Or “What makes a Compelling Story.”

  5. Gary Gray

    Forty years of generating core ideas has lead me to this:
    The biggest impediment is the need to be creative too soon.
    First be a detective, then be creative.

  6. Marta Weeks

    Great article that goes beyond fear-based arrogance about if you haven’t lived it or have a PhD. on it don’t go near it.
    I love to research. The best job I had for 15 years was RA and can fall in love with a subject and invent a story around it. However, unless I have some actual experience with the subject my story ends up sounding like a subject “paper” and my characters are so vogue they don’t even cast a shadow of profundity. So even if one researches a subject to the bone of know-it-all it does not mean that one I can write a novel around it; maybe a “paper” but a novel. Characters do not speak from their gut so a writer, so in my not so humble opinion, better get a bit of writer’s reflux.

  7. James JordanJames Jordan

    Sam,
    I didn’t realize the script “Searching for Bobby Fischer” would be so difficult to locate online. I have a hardcopy and will scan it and save as a PDF. Just send your e-mail address with your name to: CandidCoverage@aol.com and I’ll reply with the “Fischer” script, plus some other articles that you might find interesting.

    Chris,
    Great topic suggestion. I’ll get working on an article focusing on ways to help comedy writers with their scripts.

    Everyone,
    Thanks for the encouraging feedback. Keep those topic suggestions coming.

  8. Chris

    Great article James and I think the suggested exercise will be very beneficial!

    Since you offered topic requests for future articles, got any advice for us writers working on comedy scripts? Any fresh insight would be greatly appreciated!

  9. Sam

    Would love to heed your advice and read the script, but I can’t find any sites online that feature it, save one that is horribly formatted and difficult to read.

    Can anyone assist?

    thanks!

  10. Karen Covey

    Interesting read and great points! Details make all the difference but sometimes we are so close to the script that we miss opportunities to make it pop. Thanks for the reminder and the examples – I’ll definitely be following your advice and look forward to your next article!

  11. stephen guest

    yeah – good point – read, read and read some more and always remember to wear dark sunnies when being photographed (zaillian above) – promotes the x-factor – an essential part of detail!

  12. Megan Clare Johnson

    Great article James. Zaillian’s a powerful talent. Very good reminder for writers to not just keep writing and but keep reading! The small details are the most interesting to discover while watching a film or reading/writing a script.

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