Screenplay Tips

When it comes to Screenplay, we've been there, done that, now serving 101 tips in 10 categories ranging from Characters & Dialogue to The Writer's Life.

Start Your Next Script: When More Is More

Some novice writers get stuck in writing, re-writing, polishing, and marketing their one and only script for years, a surefire recipe for frustration and disaster. They'd have better chances of sparking their creativity, boosting their output, and furthering their careers if they gave that script a break and started a new project.

"This business isn't about one project. It's about consistently returning to your contacts with the next great movie," says producer Hal Croasmun. "Do that and you'll build a career."

Writer Pedro de Alcantara gives us these tips for working on more than one project at a time:

Take a seasoned screenwriter you admire, and make a list of his finished projects. Let's consider Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, 1960; Lord Jim, 1965; Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1977). His career spanned more than forty years and boasted several dozen finished projects, including several novels. Now imagine you're 80 years old and, like Brooks, you too have dozens of films to your credit. How will you have accomplished all of that?

Realize you need to juggle several projects at the same time. You won't fulfill your talents—or earn a decent living—if you work on a single project alone, from beginning to end, before taking on another one. The endless rounds of drafts, the possibility of rejection, the time spent in development hell could mean each project will face a 10-year slog with an uncertain outcome. That's just not fun.

Alternate between projects, and vary the level of commitment to each one. If you're under a tight deadline, that project ought to take precedence. But there's a lot of merit in your preparing, sketching, or simply "dreaming" another project at the same time. Take breaks from working on the main project and do a little research on the secondary one. Two hours one afternoon, a few moments Googling this or that another time. Breaks allow the main project to "rest" while another one "works." Before you know it, you'll have a new script shaping up even as you put the finishing touches on that urgent project.

Accept that the screenwriter's life includes many activities: reading, researching, outlining, drafting, revising, taking meetings, networking, attending screenings, and more. Working on any one project demands a variety of skills and the ability to do many things at the same time. If you already need to do six or eight things for your current project, it isn't that hard to do another one or two on another project.

Find the right number of activities for your temperament. Give each activity its proper weight, and find a fluid rhythm for alternating activities. You may discover that the best rhythm and the best alternation may well require a greater number of activities than you thought


Learn From Rejection

Rejection has happened to every writer, director, producer, actor, and actress in the business. Even successful writers and famous stars are sometimes rejected. J.K. Rowling's baby was turned down by many publishers before becoming Harry Potter. What makes you think it won't happen to you?

To submit means running the risk of rejection. Until you run that risk, you won't have a shot at success. The sooner you accept rejection as an unavoidable part of the process, the better.

The good news is that you get to choose how you react to rejection. You can either become depressed and discouraged, or you can decide to learn from rejection. As Hamlet famously said, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

Like all writers, Pedro de Alcantara has faced his share of rejection. Below, he shares some of the reactions to rejection he has personally experienced. A few, he admits, are more constructive than others:

• Those jerks. I want to kill them.
• Rejected again! I'm no good. I'll never succeed.
• Rejection? So be it. Tonight I'll give myself a little treat for comfort—sushi and sake, or maybe a stop at the jazz club—and tomorrow is another day.
• Well, the feedback was harsher than necessary, but the reader had a few good points. After I stop hating him I'm going to try another draft.
• This project is good, really good. I haven't found the right production company for it yet, though. I'll have to keep trying.

With time, de Alcantara has learned to optimize the rejection experience:

• A little distance, a little time, a little laughter are all helpful in dealing with most problems.
• In every community there are people who quite enjoy the company of embittered cynics. But you might stand a better chance of success if you're reasonable, attentive, open-minded, and generous to everyone, including people who have rejected your work.
• Keep track of your rejections, as you would of your submissions. First, you don't want to submit the same project to the same people twice. Second, start discerning patterns of feedback. Collective wisdom is usually right. If five producers all make similar points, you might want to listen.
• There's "true rejection" (when a likely production company rejects a likely project) and "false rejection" (when you enter a lottery, such as a competition, and don't place; or when you mistakenly send a romantic comedy to a production company that specializes in Asian martial-arts flicks). It's useful to ponder "true rejection" and learn from it. Let "false rejection" go; it means virtually nothing.


Tools Of The Trade

All anyone really needs to jot down his thoughts is a stick and some dirt, but it's hard to develop a fetish for mud. How lucky we are, then, that humanity invented office supplies. Oh, how much time we can waste searching for that elusive, perfect blank notebook! Not too fat. Not too thin. With just the right feel. And just the right scent. Procrastination never smelled so good.

Well, indulge yourself from time to time. Choosing, collecting, and readying your writing tools can be an integral part of the preparation. For me, picking up paper and pencil signals my mind that I'm ready for brainstorming. Sitting at the computer sends a message that it's time for lucidity. Grabbing a fountain pen and my journal means I'm about to get personal.

The right tools can focus you for the job ahead, whatever that may be. The danger lies in believing you can't write without the proper tools, which isn't true, of course. A real writer can make do with whatever is at hand, including mud. But if you have a choice, why not use whatever speaks to you most?


A Space For Your Writing

Besides establishing a rhythm for your writing, carve out a special space for it, too. Whether you turn a spare bedroom into a writer's den or stow your stuff in the glove compartment and write on the dashboard of your car is up to you. The important thing is for you to associate some little corner of the universe with the act of writing. Create a place you like being in. Fill it with things that inspire you. Strip it of every distraction. Make it yours.

I have different spaces for different parts of the writing process. I brainstorm in an armchair in the corner of my office, but I compose at my desk. When I had a larger kitchen, I loved working at the kitchen table. I generally prefer to work from home, but sometimes I go to a café, especially when I'm proofreading or editing. I have a harder time with other public places, though I have done good work in planes, trains, and hotel rooms.

Sometimes, just by shifting locations you can get the creative juices flowing. Try out different spots until you figure out what combination works best for you.


Making Time To Write

The path from wanting to write to having written is in the writing. It's not in the dreaming, the planning, or the research. Writers write, it's as simple as that.

Some people write every day, others don't. I write in bursts. I work as a freelancer, and both my personality and my professional life demand alternation. Once I accepted this, I was able to find a rhythm that works for me. Deadlines help. When I know I'm entering a phase where other obligations will demand a great deal of my attention, I enroll in a writing class just to have a deadline. My husband, who's also a freelancer, writes new materials daily. He keeps a log and won't go to bed until he can make a note in it for that day. While I admire his disciplined style, I have my own way of doing things. He is he, and I am I.

First, determine what writing rhythms work best for you. Try writing every day. Try writing twice a week or only on the weekends. Try time limits and page limits. Try early mornings, try after midnight. Once you've discovered your preferences, be ruthless about protecting your writing time. Schedule it like any other important appointment, and then keep it. Do whatever it takes. Close your door, disconnect your phone, ask someone to mind the kids. But sit down at the scheduled time until you complete what you said you would. Just you and the blank page. Without distractions.

Write even if you can't think of anything to write about. The biggest mistake you can make is to wait for inspiration. In what other line do you have the luxury of waiting until you feel like it to get busy? Whoever asked a heart surgeon if he felt like doing a triple bypass, or an airline pilot if he was in the mood to fly to Cincinnati? What if your waitress didn't bring you your food because she was waiting for inspiration?

Just write, whether you feel like it or not. If you're lucky, your fingers will fly across the keyboard effortlessly. If you're not, the session must take place all the same. Heart surgery involves blood. Waitressing involves sore feet. Writing involves producing pages. That's just the way it is. Love it or hate it, that's what a writer does.


The Writerly Attitude

Here's one from guest tipster Pedro de Alcantara:

"To be a writer is a 24/7 occupation, although writing itself takes only a fraction of your day. Being a writer doesn't really mean to write for a living, or even to write at all, but to think as a writer, to see the world as a writer, to be in the world as a writer—in short, to have a writerly attitude. It means to love words; to see every human being, man, woman, and child as a character in a drama, unfolding in front of your eyes on an infinite stage; to sense people's motivations, their personal narratives, their back stories; to sense everyone's character arc, friends', colleagues', strangers'; to sense foretelling in a gesture, a word, an action; to sense dramatic tension and relaxation in the unfolding of an event; to sense myth and stereotype and archetype in people and in their interactions; to love analysis, synthesis, description, explanation, condensation, to understand that words can do anything and everything you want them to do.

"For a writer, to watch a Simpsons rerun is to study the three-act structure, the interweaving of plot and subplot, the unfolding of story as conflict. Every character in The Simpsons has an antagonist. Even Maggie: hers is the Baby With One Eyebrow. The writer wants to re-write all that falls under his eyes—cereal boxes, street signs, slogans, even medicine labels. The writer never stops being a writer: at night, he dreams of Jungian archetypes, Freudian erotica, and plain old horror movies.

"The writerly attitude is a precondition to all writing, and the serious writer is forever sharpening it. Read, eavesdrop, spy. Become a psychologist, historian, and philosopher rolled into one. Travel to experience other cultures and their differing sense of the human theater. When the writerly attitude is in place, the pages will flow out of you like maple syrup out of Vermont."

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