By Rich Whiteside
I am not a structure guru and have always offered my articles as insights from an avid student and writer. I have been successful in many arenas in my life and have found that successful habits translate across fields of pursuit. The article being reprised here was written over ten years ago, but it is still valid today. For 25 plus years, I have been as serious a student of screenwriting approaches as you will ever find, and I have been a professional technical writer for over thirty years. Much of my time that could have been spent writing spec scripts was diverted to technical writing—earning over a million dollars in that field. Having come to this town after age 40, I was never able to sustain the breaks I did attain and have pretty much run out of time. That’s the screenwriting life. It is my hope that entry-level screenwriters can benefit from my experience and study and advance faster and with less angst. On my office bookshelf is every salient screenwriting how-to book published—heavily underlined, I might add—and dozens upon dozens of lesser known books, some dating back to the start of filmmaking. Training wise, I completed three years in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, studied the USC World Building approach, taken Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting Colony, Robert McKee’s workshop, and dozens of other workshops. I have studied all the major camps of structure, first to absorb the teacher’s philosophy and second to determine how that philosophy might enhance my writing process and my writing style. I have interviewed over a hundred writers, producers, directors, studio development executives, agents, screenwriting professors and authors of major screenwriting how to books. These interviews were used to turn out dozens upon dozens of articles under my byline for screenwriting magazines, newsletters and for my book, The Screenwriting Life. I hope you find a few useful nuggets in my thoughts. My most valuable advice is to simply write—writers write. That’s the only way to learn and grow. Soon I will be publishing a series of short pamphlets to help those of you coming to screenwriting to help you find clarity in the sea of advice and structure camps out there. Find whatever approach that takes away your fear of writing—that is probably the greatest value the books and classes offer. Again: writers write every day.
Are you among the sea of aspiring screenwriters, frustrated in your efforts to break in? Everywhere I go, I’m confronted with the angst of aspiring screenwriters as they scream, “Give me a path to follow! Tell me what school to attend, what conference to go to, and I’ll do it. I’ll pay any price. Just tell me what to do.” But these wails fall on deaf ears, cut off by the ever-present glass barrier between them and the people who can change their lives.
As a group, struggling writers obsess over getting read, landing an agent or getting sold as a measure of their success and worth as a screenwriter … and they hold onto that self-defining dream with the tenacity of a Pit Bull Terrier. Stop it! Focus on honing your skills. Go out and network. If you work at it properly, you can probably get read, but that will still leave you feeling frustrated and empty when it leads nowhere. Even if you are a better writer than everyone in the business, statistically you still have no shot at selling a script. The odds are stacked against you … way against you. Consider the adage, “Anyone can be President, but not everyone can.” Well, the same is true for screenwriting. Each year, more than a million new scripts are written, but only an infinitesimally small number get sold, fewer get made and fewer still are distributed. This is the overpowering reality.
Even if you do get read, you’ll probably hear nothing back because they won’t call you to say, “No thank you.” And the reason they won’t call is that they know when they say, “No,” you will ask, “Why? What’s wrong with it? What can I change?” They simply don’t want to walk down that road to justify their decision. It’s messy. As a result, they don’t call, or, if forced to respond, they will say something innocuous like, “It’s a good story, but it’s not something we’d produce.” It’s as plain as that.
So, let go of the all-consuming preoccupation with getting read, landing an agent or selling a script. Lay out realistic, progressive goals. Prepare to fight for your very life because you’ll have to beat out all the other aspiring writers who believe their talents, ambition and clever stories exceed yours. And ENJOY THE JOURNEY. If you insist on trying to break in, you’d better have a passion for writing and telling stories because therein lies your happiness, sense of control and accomplishment. Focus on the one thing that is empowering: become a solid writer.
Back to goal setting. What is a productive goal? It is one that is in your power to achieve. Now, granted, your ultimate objective may be to get read, to land an agent or to sell a script, but these should not be goals because you can’t control their achievement. Think of these objectives as the potential byproduct of the work you perform in achieving your goals. In other words, break this overall objective down into achievable, progressive milestones.
Now, before I lay out a specific list of goals (as suggestions), we need to talk about laying a solid screenwriting foundation.
Master The Basics. Learn to write scripts that are clear, grammatically correct, 105 – 110 pages properly formatted and tell compelling stories. And I do mean “master,” which does not mean that you learn just enough to be able to lean brashly against the wall, full of yourself, quoting magnificent truisms from books or lectures. Just because you can spout wonderful, insightful one-liners doesn’t mean that you truly understand and can execute the philosophy behind them. So, get beyond the rhetoric.
Here are the basics for writing good spec scripts: Learn to write crisp, clean and succinct sentences. Be clear and precise…and short. Write in an active voice (cut out the “ing” words). For example, instead of writing “John is walking to the door,” write “John darts to the door.” This has more energy, is more compact, makes a choice in how he walks and creates a visceral visual image. The first sentence is vague, lacking a writer’s voice. Be specific. Make a choice. Get rid of the “we see” in the action description, and no scene numbers in a spec script. Nothing screams amateur like having scene numbers in a spec script.
* Use good grammar. If your grammar is shaky, take a class or read a book on the subject.
* Learn the basics of classic structure. Read all the books on screenwriting that you can get your hands on. Learn how to weave plot and character into compelling stories.
* Don’t direct the director (in a spec script). By this, I mean, do not use camera angles. They insult directors who read your material because, in essence, you are telling them where to place their cameras. Let them visualize how they would shoot it. That‘s far more engaging than having you do all the work for them. On top of that, writing in camera angles eats up page real-estate … use your pages to tell your story and not to try to appear to be a sophisticated, hip screenwriter. If you want to bring attention to something, find ways to do it in prose. For example, an inexperienced writer might write this:
BEGIN OVERWRITING EXAMPLE:
It’s dark as we PAN across a thick jungle surrounding a tall mountain. ZOOM IN on a farmhouse nestled ever so neatly into the dark green foliage of trees and bushes. There is nothing going on here. We see no movement, and we hear no sounds.
PAN over to A DOZEN MILITARY TROOPS hidden in the vegetation. They are sitting very still, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. They are all wearing HAZARDOUS MATERIAL SUITS and carrying AK-47’s. All the men are packed to capacity with knives and ammo and grenades. CLOSE ON BRAD, the Platoon Leader, who is looking through bulky night vision goggles. He is scanning the farmhouse, making sure that no one has noticed them.
Secure in the feeling that no one is alerted to their presence, he starts signaling to a squad of his men. They start running toward the farmhouse. FOLLOW the SOLDIERS as they move into positions along the front of the building, next to the front door. Once in place, they stop, waiting for instructions.
TIGHT ON a SQUADMAN who removes a DEMOLITION PACK from his backpack. When he has the charge ready, the SQUAD LEADER starts signaling him to go to the door. The man starts walking to the door. ECU as his hands carefully and quietly place the demolition pack on the door handle. After he has set the charge in place, PULL BACK to FOLLOW him as he returns to his place alongside the other men. The Squad Leader is now ready and starts signaling the Platoon Leader that everything is in place.
We FOLLOW the Squad Leader’s eyes as he looks at the Platoon Leader for instructions. ECU the Platoon Leader as he looks at the house. This is a war-hardened, deadly serious face. He’s concerned that someone might see them before they are ready to go in. When he feels the time is right, he starts signaling the Squad Leader.
We SWISH PAN to the Squad Leader as he starts signaling the man controlling the door demolition pack. The man pushes a button and the door charge EXPLODES. It is blown to pieces. Wood and parts of the door frame fly through the air, some pieces pelting the squad members along the house. A BURNING EMBER lands on one soldier who casually flicks it off like a pesky ant. None of the men flinches at the sound of the explosion.
The Squad Leader starts signaling his men, and they rush into the building in a precision manner. We FOLLOW them into the building as …
END OVERWRITING EXAMPLE
This action can be rewritten more actively and more succinctly as:
BEGIN CLEANED-UP EXAMPLE:
Thick jungle and mountains back a simple farmhouse.
Armed MILITARY TROOPS, dressed in full-body jungle HAZARDOUS MATERIAL SUITS, are staged. Hidden. The Platoon Leader scans the residence through a night vision device.
No activity. He signals a group of THREE MEN who move in quickly, taking up positions along the front of the building. One man slips an explosive charge over the door handle and retreats to his position.
After one final scan of the area, the Platoon Leader signals. The door charge EXPLODES, blowing the door inward, and the troops surge inside. END CLEANED-UP EXAMPLE:
Look at the page real estate that you can now devote to something more important or use to simply cut your page count down. So, unless you are going to direct the script yourself, cut this crap out. Professional readers see this and think, “amateur.”
Stay tuned for Part 2.
- Balls of Steel: Writing Space + Writing Routine = Progress
- What’s Your Story: Creating a Successful Writing Practice
- Meet the Reader: Are You Done?