How to get yourself to actually… WRITE. There’s a bazillion distractions fighting for your attention. If you want to write, if YOU REALLY WANT TO WRITE, you must fight for your attention too, or else you’re dead in the water.
You’ll be thinking about the screenplay you should have written for years (I’ve seen this happen to many would-be screenwriters). Whether you have a job, a kid, two kids, two jobs and two kids, there’s always a way to get yourself into the writing zone. Like so…
SOUNDTRACK YOUR MOVIE
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
1. Don’t just choose music you like to listen to. Find melodies that fit your story “tonally.” For example, I can fire up Mark Mothersbaugh’s soundtrack to “Lego: The Movie” while writing my quirky comedy, but not for my cancer melodrama. You hear me?
2. I wouldn’t pick more than 3 soundtracks. I usually use 1 or 2 at the very most. Why? You want your brain to associate that particular music with that particular script. Your dog knows “sit” means to sit down. Imagine if you told your canine friend, “get comfortable” or “have seat.” Right?
Your writing brain is eerily similar to your dog. You want to maintain commands. I frequently write more than one script at a time, so separating my soundtracks is super important. I do not just have “writing music.” I choose specific music for specific scripts.
3. Earphones. Earbuds. Ear muffs. Whatever it takes to shut out the world orally is the difference between writing 6 pages or 6 words. As Andre Agassi once said, “momentum is the most important thing in life.” If you’re constantly interrupted by texts, emails, loved ones, you’ll be lucky to get 6 syllables down.
On the days I don’t use earphones, I pay a hefty price. 100% of the time, when I’m somehow too lazy to plug one, then two earbuds into my ears, I write significantly less. They don’t call ’em “screenwriting tips” for nothing.
Soundtracking Script Tip BONUS
We’ve all experienced a piece of music that has entered us in such a deep way, it seemed to have touched our soul. If you don’t believe in souls or spirits or ghosts, you still must admit you have experienced “emotions” with music. Guess what, those “emotions” can amplify your writing to another level. In this era of smart phones, I don’t understand why “sound-tracking” is not used more. This very powerful screenwriting tip alone may be just what you need to trick out your script.
Screenwriting Tips – #2 Obsession
When you show up to wage war, you better arrive with the right amount of artillery, men, knowledge of terrain, and understanding of your enemy. Why? Because…
Writing is a Battlefield.
When I hear people tell me they sit down in front of their computer and they don’t know what to write, I want to choke, slap, and pity this person. Because to sit in front of your computer and not know what to write is equal to going to war with no weapons, maps, men, and so on. So, in writing parlance, how do you marshal your forces for battle?
Crush on your Script
It doesn’t matter how busy you think you are. We all suffer from “empty time.” And this “empty time” is very crucial to writing your best. Because you can use that time to “write” before you sit down to write. Here’s one word that describes this function: OBSESSION.
Let’s talk about something we all have in common. We’ve all had crushes on someone. What happens when you long for that person? You’d do anything to be with them, right? You think about them 24/7. You fantasize about this handsome person as if your life depended on it.
You think about how said person would look like in your living room. You think about what said person would look like eating ice cream. Playing tennis. Watching tennis.
Here’s a Script Tip for you: Obsession is Writing.
Writing is not just the physical act of writing. Your mind must be “owned” by your story, just like the person you have a crush on.
If you want to write – if YOU REALLY WANT TO WRITE – you better be thinking about your script 24/7. While you’re driving. While you’re waiting in line at the post office. While you’re working. While talking to your spouse. You better be crushing on your script so much, that your script wants to put a restraining order on you.
What the hell do you mean, “obsess over your script?” you ask…
To just think about the script what… being 120 pages? Perfectly spelled checked? Your name under the title on courier font? No, screenplay formatting is not what I mean.
Let’s start with this: what is your visual definition of writing. A guy on a keyboard typing away. Now take that image and throw it in the fireplace and watch it burn. Because I’m now giving you the real image of writing.
When Mike Tyson used to knock out guys in 90-seconds, he said no one saw how hard he trained. Meaning, he didn’t just enter the ring and work for 90-seconds. He woke up at 5 am every morning, worked the speed bag, footwork and hundreds of other things you don’t see. That’s training. That is what “writing” actually is. The obsession. Such as, but not limited to…
- Reading screenplays “tonally” similar to your script.
- Screenwriting Tips i.e. #1 “Soundtracking”
- Reading research material.
- Watching research material.
- Re-reading your treatment or script pages.
- Listening to audio material, either research or oral notes.
These aren’t just screenwriting tips, these are “obsession tools.”
These tools fill “empty time.” You can develop the crush on your script more deeply while waiting in line at the post office, driving, washing dishes, and in some cases, while working…. in general, anything you define as “empty time.”
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
Of all my screenwriting tips, this one requires the most preparation. First, I set out all of my “obsession tools.” Second, I put as much as I can into my iPad, which is portable. Third, I take it everywhere I go. And I mean everywhere. If you can fit “obsession tools” in your smart phone, great. If you have notebooks in a briefcase, great. Just make sure you bring those tools EVERYWHERE with you, because “empty time” can and will rear its ugly head at any moment.
- Traveling. Every day, I go somewhere. Whether I drive, walk, bike, take the subway, I’ve got my audio stuff ready. If there’s no audio material (like a book or a podcast, there is always the soundtrack I picked for my story I can listen to… that will certainly get me in the “crushing mood”, oh yes).
- Grooming and toiletry. Whether I’m shaving, brushing my teeth or sitting on the can (one of the great “empty times” of our lives… just think of all the hours you spent in your life sitting there doing nothing but, no pun intended), I am “obsession ready.”
- Errands or waiting in line. Whether I’m in line at the post office, DMV, the bank, the INS, FBI, or Trader Joe’s, I am in the position of getting tons of reading done. Many of these places hate it when you have the earphones on (you know, when it’s been your turn and everyone’s been calling you?), so I generally read. I’ve gotten so much mental writing done while others yawned, sighed, cursed or just repressed their rage waiting in line and watching their time vaporize — not me, I am crushing on my script. Hard.
BONUS Screenwriting Tips!
Sometimes, I listen to materials while doing bills, writing emails, shopping on Amazon, watching sports (with the sound off), there really is no limit to “obsession.” Fill empty time and watch yourself scowling whenever someone says they have no idea what to write when they sit down in front of the computer. After this much “crushing,” trust me, you can’t wait to get your hands on the object of your affection… by way of the keyboard.
Screenwriting Tips – #3 Channeling
Stephen King says to be a professional writer, you have to read and write for at least four hours a day. Mr. King also says that he is shocked at how many wanna-be writers tell him, ” but I don’t have time to read.” To which King argues, “well, maybe you should consider another career.”
It’s very difficult to argue against Carrie, The Shining, Misery, The Green Mile, Cujo, and the numerous books and films Stephen King has under his belt. He is after all one of the most successful writers of our time; the value of reading must have some truth to it.
Script writing tip #3 is all about reading. It’s not only as crucial as Mr. King professes, but it also one of the most powerful screenplay tips to MAKE you write screenplays. Sitting down to write a script can be so agonizing and so last-thing-you-want-to-do-ish, any fairy dust you can sprinkle to motivate yourself is a plus (that’s why cocaine was so big in the 80s). Herein lies a writing habit I call…
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for writers who don’t read screenplays. And here’s why: when I made the decision to be a screenwriter, I was 16. This was a loooong time ago. So long ago, the only screenplays I could find at the library was “Adam’s Rib” and “Full Metal Jacket” — and neither of them were screenplays, but transcripts of the movie.
If I wanted a “real” screenplay, I had to drive to Hollywood and buy one for $15. And I did. And over the years, I would drive to the movie memorabilia store on Wilcox, and buy screenplays for $15. Gradually, scripts became more available… many getting published in book form… and I bought most of them (Coen Brothers, Oliver Stone, David Mamet). But today, you can get ALMOST any screenplay you want for free!? Simply at the touch of your fingertips.
I’m like someone from the turn of the century who grew up without running water. Free screenplays are deeply fucking miraculous to me — like running water.
It’s like being a painter and getting a lifetime pass to the Louvre 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Or wanting to be a car engineer and having access to Henry Ford’s garage. Or wanting to be a chef and having access to Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen.
Or wanting to be a screenwriter and having access to the works of Shane Black, Joe Eztherhas, James Cameron and any screenwriting legend FOR FREE! This miracle on the web is one of your greatest writing weapons. And almost no aspiring screenwriter I meet uses it.
What? You can walk in and explore collections of the greatest works of your trade and study them closely — and see what worked and how. And you choose not to?
What if I told you there’s a way to CHANNEL Oliver Stone, James Cameron and Paul Schrader at their peak to review your pages and gave you notes while you write your screenplay? Would you consider that a valuable tool? Sounds pretty magical, right?
It’s not magical. This is a script writing habit I have cultivated for years.
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
1) When I am embarking on a new screenplay, I choose three professional screenplays similar to MY screenplay to READ while I am WRITING.
Example. I wrote a sci-script that had to do with the planet “Venus” last year (I cannot reveal more). The three screenplays I chose were:
a) “Aliens.” Because it’s a sci-fi script with a female protag (so was my script). And also, it was written by James Cameron, one of the greatest screenwriters of all time (is there anything the man can’t do?).
b) “Backdraft.” The planet “Venus” is 900-degrees and consumed in lava and fire. I wanted a script that described fire in detail.
c) “The Expendables.” My script had tons of characters. Although this is not the greatest screenplay on Earth, Stallone did a great job writing distinctive character traits for the massive number of characters in his geriatric tale.
2) I only read THESE 3 SCREENPLAYS in beats. I use the “Save the Cat” beats, but you can use any beat you want. Example. I will read “Aliens.” “Backdraft,” or “Expendables” until the “catalyst” (about 5-7 pages). And then I will STOP READING. And start writing my script for UNTIL the catalyst. Then I will read “Aliens,” “Backdraft” and “Expendables” until the “debate” (until about page 12). And then STOP READING. Then, I will write MY script until the “debate.”
I will continue this way for ALL THE BEATS — break into act 2, fun and games, mid- point, bad guys close in, dark night of the soul, break into 3.
I finish reading “Aliens,” “Backdraft,” and “Expendables” at the same time I finish MY DRAFT.
Throughout the entire writing process, I compare three professionally written, produced movies to my screenplay.
3) When I embark on a second draft, I choose three more screenplays.
I am always CHANNELING the mind of PRODUCED SCREENWRITERS. Why?
That is my aim — for MY SCREENPLAY to be produced, therefore, the giants I place beside my SCREENPLAY are always side by side with my script.
And you know something, as I read these great films beat by beat while I am in the act of writing myself, I start to see things I never saw before….
I start to understand very deeply how James Cameron might have come up with an idea, or why he wrote a comic relief line… I feel like I’m inside his mind when he wrote “Aliens.”
“Aliens” was really a movie about mothers who lose their children. Ripley was gone for so long, her real daughter got too old and died. Now, she gets a second chance with Newt. But here’s the catch, Ripley must fight another mother. This is of course the alien mother — and she wants payback too. “Aliens” is a Mommy fight. Everything in that script leads back to this Mommy duel. I channeled James Cameron and understood the heart of his creation.
Don’t just follow professional screenwriting tips – channel the pros while you’re writing your script. And when you’re comparing yourself to giants, the last thing on your mind is to stop. You want to keep writing and writing and writing… what Mr. King emphatically preaches in his book, “On Writing.”
And if you want to get paid to be a writer, it’s you know… wise to take your screenwriting tips from the best the business.
Screenwriting Tips – #4 On Two Legs
Writing is a physical action. Volatile, exhausting, and heart-beat inducing. That’s why it’s tough to sit COMPLETELY STILL to write. That’s also why writing can be the last thing you want to do. Do you actually want to sit in that chair, in front of that computer, at that desk, totally statuesque for hours and concentrate the hell out of your imagination to create? It’s sort of a repellent thing to ask of yourself.
It took me years to learn a very simple script writing tip that I now apply almost every time I write. Ready? I DO NOT sit. I do something called…
WHAT? I don’t have to sit down to write? Are you kidding me?
It’s been beaten into your mind to sit down to perform any kind of intellectual task, because you went to school from age 5-18 and there was less and less recess every year. Eventually you got a driver’s license and sat down in your car as well as in the classroom. No matter what kind of student you were, you learned how to sit your ass down for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
The very powerful writing weapon I’m about to teach you requires you to UNLEARN that sitting down bullshit. There is no law, no logic, and in fact no need to sit down when you write.
I got the idea from reading Walter Murch’s books. Murch is the legendary film and sound editor of “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and many other great films. His books “The Conversations” and “In the Blink of an Eye” should be read by anyone who wants a creative career in cinema. Anyway, Mr. Murch stands up when he edits his films (he built his own editing system for this very purpose). He compares it to “dancing” with his film. He likes to be on his feet. Waltzing with his celluloid.
Anyway, I read about this “standing up/ dancing with the movie” pro tip years ago but only began applying it recently. Why? Because I got older. My stationary, creaky bones are less forgiving and I started asking myself things like, “is it wrong if I don’t sit while I write?” My shoulders and back are rebelling against the other parts of my body. And then I heard Malcolm X’s voice shouting, “it is not only NOT wrong, but unnecessary for a man to sit while he writes. It is the pinnacle of the free man!”
Conclusion, I thought about Murch dancing with his movies. I can do the same thing with writing, can’t I? Editing tip appropriated into my screenwriting tips, boom.
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
TODAY, I always find a spot where I can stand up and write.
It’s like locating the emergency room exit when you enter a crowded space. Instantly, I scan the room and spot:
- A high table.
- A bookshelf
- A washing machine
- A cabinet
Anything that brings my writing tablet eye level with me. Point is – you MUST confront your story! Eyeball to eyeball. And see how much easier it is to engage in the physical act of writing. Because you are more likely to write (and enjoy doing it) if you don’t have to be sitting still the whole time. You’re no museum piece. You’re a writer. Get on your feet. Duel with your story. Beat it into submission. You’re the master. The story is your servant. Don’t look up to it, look down at it. Your muscles will get sore, but your mind will be engaged that much more because your blood will flow faster.
In public places, it’s more challenging to find standing spots. As I write this, I’m at the Santa Barbara Library, where only tables are available. And my bones hurt and my legs are buzzy because I’ve been here for a couple hours (ironically, I’m in the home city of screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder, who’s short life was claimed by a blood clot in his leg. I’ve always wondered if this was a result of sitting down too much).
I have stood up in coffee shops with bar stool sections. I’ve stood up at laundromats (where I’ve done tons of writing). And at the office, I’m frequently in the kitchen, my writing machine propped on top of the microwave (while microwave is off).
I don’t stand up all the time, but I do it as much as I can. And miss it when I can’t. It is more pleasurable, enjoyable and fulfilling to stand up to my story.
BONUS Screenwriting Tips!
Health-wise, it’s so much better for you to not be sitting down hours and hours per day. At the end of a writing shift, you feel like you had a workout, which is so much better than the usual post-writing blues of stiff backs, sore shoulders, and atrophied legs.
As habit guru Gretchen Rubin writes, “sitting is the new smoking.” Do it at your own risk. Walter Murch is by the way in great-looking physical shape for an old timer Hollywood editor guy. Have you seen what the Hollywood editor usually looks like? If you had to sleep with one editor, Murch would be your man. Anyway, stand up straight and conquer that story.
Screenwriting Tips – #5 Sublimation
Writing is a form of expression. That means, the function works best when you are expressing something. Not telling a story because it has a clever plot, because you thought of some awesome action scene, or because you want to make a shitload of money.
There is nothing wrong with any of these motivations. But if you find you’re writing to sell a million-dollar screenplay and you haven’t touched said script in months because you’re just not “in the mood,” you may want to rethink your motivation.
Because the best of the best (Schrader, Tarantino, Vince Gilligan) use writing to express themselves. This may sound too abstract today. So, I’m going to narrow “expressing yourself” into something more specific.
Welcome to a screenwriting tip I use all the time and it works beautifully.
WTF is Sublimation?
It’s what Sigmund Freud termed the act of taking an anxiety and expressing it creatively. Does it work?
Sublimation is a professional screenplay writing tip Remember John Hughes? He wrote “Vacation,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Planes, Train and Automobiles” and so on. Well, Hughes suffered from OCD and used to work that out through screenwriting. He sometimes wrote screenplays in four-days. He thus sublimated his anxiety into one of the greatest screenwriting careers in Hollywood history.
So yes, it works. I’ve never written a good screenplay in four days, but I always SUBLIMATE. And I can’t imagine writing without it.
Still you ask, WTF is sublimation?
I’m going to narrow this down even more. Ever heard of COMPLAINING?
You do that, don’t you? I sure do it. There’s something in the world that upsets you, whether its Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Atheists, children, adults, whatever. Something pisses you off and you always complain about it.
What if you could take that ugly energy and recycle into screenwriting? Well, you can. George Lucas hated living in Los Angeles so much that he designed the Death Star around the geography of LA. Notice the flat, impersonal buildings? Lucas did not love LA and so he obliterated it at the end of his movie.
Although Lucas has never been outspoken politically, he designed “Return of the Jedi” around the Vietnam War. The Ewoks are the Vietnamese. The Evil Empire is the US ransacking them in their own forest — and failing.
James Cameron doesn’t complain about how we destroy the Earth, but instead makes Avatar, about how an evil corporation wants to invade a perfectly good planet and cut down its trees and destroyed its land.
Wes Craven named Fred Krueger after his high school bully. I once met Shane Black who told me he kept a gun under his pillow (not unlike his alter ego, Martin Riggs in “Lethal Weapon”).
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
1. SUBLIMATION works best if it’s something that pisses you off today. The health care system, gun owners, or the President who wants to take away your guns, whatever. This also works if it’s something you haven’t gotten over, like Wes Craven’s trauma of dealing with his bully (whom he named after his greatest villain, “Fred Krueger”). Whatever it is, it must be something you are dealing with.
2. Your COMPLAINT doesn’t have to be a big deal. Usually what irks you the most may not be a big deal to everyone else in your life. Great.
The show “Seinfeld” was literally constructed around these banal whinings. The Soup Nazi, the agony of finding a good parking spot, the excessive amount of birthday parties at work. These were all based on one of the writer’s experiences. The staff was encouraged to do this to amplify the authenticity of the show.
3. It doesn’t have to be negative. James Cameron implemented his truck driving past into all his movies. The crew in “Aliens” and “The Abyss” are pretty much truck drivers. The beginning of the “The Terminator” films begin on the fender of a diesel truck.
Matt Groening named all “The Simpsons” after one of his family members. Adrian Lynne recalled the autistic children his mother used to teach fondly and put their idiosyncrasies on Glenn Close, the bad guy in “Fatal Attraction” (watch it again and see how she reacts when she starts to lose it… like she’s autistic).
You can take anything, any kind of experience, no matter how big or small and SUBLIMATE into your screenplay. It’s like putting great gasoline in your car.
I emphasize our need to COMPLAIN because we do it far too much. For a writer, complaining is a big waste of great writing fuel; why jabber about what pisses you off to someone who doesn’t care. Why not write about it instead? That energy is powerful and can make your script great, like Paul Schrader (the greatest screenwriting SUBLIMATION may be “Taxi Driver”).
On top of that, if your movie gets made, millions will pay attention, no matter what you whine about, like in “Return of the Jedi,” “Avatar,” and “Taxi Driver.”
Build an emotional bridge between your heart and your story and watch your screenplay grow like a mushroom cloud of intensity. And here is the great power of this tactic… you can’t wait to complain about whatever it is that burns you.
That means, once you find a way to insert that COMPLAINT into your screenplay, your desire to write will be feverish; you will WANT to WRITE above everything else. SUBLIMATE your script.
Screenwriting Tips – #6 Scriptment
Screenwriting appears easy, because there isn’t a lot of words on the page. But that is only an illusion. Fiction writing is a million times easier than screenwriting, because you have the freedom to use all five of your senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Which you’ve been taught to do since kindergarten.
But in screenwriting, there are ONLY TWO SENSES you can use. SIGHT and SOUND. And that’s it. Since you’ve been trained to write with all five senses, the limits of WRITING with less than half of these senses can reduce you to an agony unknown to Man — and only known to Dante when he wrote “The Inferno.” Welcome to screenwriting!
It’s like writing with one hand tied behind your back. It’s like writing blindfolded. It’s like writing with three senses missing! Like you’re a war veteran who walked on a land mine and can no longer taste, touch or smell (you can only see and hear.., and that’s it).
And somehow, being limited to these two senses, you’re supposed to be in touch with humanity even more because you’re a fucking screenwriter now — and that’s your job. How can you want to write under these horrible conditions? How can you connect your reader to emotion with just TWO SENSES? How can you make a living with these terrible limits?
Well, I’m going to introduce you to a writing method that circumvents this great challenge. Known as…
What if I told you some professionals, in fact the greatest professional, the most successful filmmaker of all time bypasses the LIMITS of these TWO SENSES with a simple technique. What if I told you this filmmaker actually published said document back in 1995 and still very few screenwriters employ this writing habit?
The filmmaker in question is James Cameron. The published version of the STRANGE DAYS SCRIPTMENT was indeed published in 1995. And yes, very few people know about it. Additionally, screenwriters I discuss this with simply brush me away like I’m in this weird scriptment cult and I should shut up. Seriously, that is how I’m treated.
Now you ask… how can this SCRIPTMENT help you write? How can it free you from the tortuous limits of the TWO SENSE system of screenwriting? What is this SCRIPTMENT?
In this historical published document, Cameron talks freely about how in his FIRST DRAFT, he frees himself from the shackles of screenwriting and does anything he can to just move the writing forward. Although the scriptment is supposed to be combination of script and treatment, it employs ALL FIVE SENSES.
The scriptment is a killer screenwriting tip for dialogue. For example, if Cameron is writing and he’s stuck on how to write dialogue, he’ll just write what the character is thinking. If the scene comes to him, he writes the scene. If not, he’ll use another sense.
Additionally, in his scriptment, Cameron says:
- Adios slug lines.
- Ignore those numerous screenwriting laws.
- Forget about INT or EXT.
- Employ ALL FIVE SENSES
James Cameron POWERs through his first draft. Screenwriting is so unnatural to the way we normally think. Which makes this script technique the freest way to achieve a first draft.
Additionally, why would the most successful filmmaker of all time be wrong, the only writer/director to TWICE IN A ROW achieve the status of highest grossing film of all time (“Titanic” then “Avatar”) — an achievement neither George Lucas nor Steven Spielberg can boast.
And guess what? The SCRIPTMENT works magically…
…it not only helps you create a dynamic first screenplay draft that offers you every opportunity to nail a taut, engaging second draft (usually, the draft you start showing people aside from your spouse and best friend), but it’s freeing, fun, and expressive. You WANT TO WRITE a SCRIPTMENT. It’s loose and fluid, whereas a script is TIGHT and OVERBEARING.
On top of that, the employment of “the other three senses” becomes engaging, solidly written scenes in your future drafts. It gives you a great sense of what the character wants. It gives you a sense of your environment, world, what characters eat, drink, where they hang out, because it’s SO FREESTYLE.
It is a wonderful way to MAKE YOU WRITE. And for beginners craving screenwriting tips – a scriptment is perfect if you’re new to this profession. I’m puzzled why so many screenwriters and even amateur screenwriters I meet pooh-pooh the SCRIPTMENT.
The method not only helps me maximize my screenplays, but it fills me with a zest and spirit that amplifies my story. YOU actually DESIRE to WRITE with this magical technique. Also, the richest screenwriter of all time can’t be wrong.
Screenwriting Tips – #7 Green Thumb
Some days you are so excited to write. Ideas, dialogue, and action just comes to you. But on the days when you’re not in the mood, your decision to write can feel like sitting in church or in court. It’s like watching paint dry on your laptop screen or watching a clock tick during detention.
But it shouldn’t be that way, and for pros, it usually isn’t. Because they…
Plant the Seed
I always compare writing to war, but the action is like many other artistic expressions, such as painting, poetry, cooking… but today, we’re going to compare it to “gardening.”
Now, I don’t know much about gardening, but I do know you plant seeds, wait and watch fresh fruits or vegetables to grow. And then you get to eat juicy oranges, tomatoes or whatever when they ripen. I know it’s not THAT simple, but that is the basic nature of “gardening.”
What if I told you that you can PLANT THE SEED in your writing shift BEFORE YOU WRITE. This method makes writing profoundly more fluid, especially on the days you’d rather eat coal than face the keyboard.
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
1. Before my shift, I review my pages to see what problems I will face. Let’s say, if I’m driving to the office, I will read my pages before the drive. My brain will then start processing the problems… by the time I sit down, the seed will have been planted already. That awkward moment when you sit your ass on your seat and face the computer screen is no more (if I write at home early in the morning, I might review my pages the night before – I heard Presidents do this, review materials the night before and yes, it works).
2. Let’s say, I didn’t have time to review my material. I usually apply one of these three tactics:
- a) I soundtrack (see script tip #1 associating music I chose for my script to get me emotional about it, because we are emotional creatures, yes?).
- b) Play an audio book or youtube clip that’s relevant to my script.
- c) Discuss the material with my partner, if I have one for that script… or discuss the script with my girlfriend or a close friend. Meaning, talk to them about character issues or plot, or any little detail I don’t look forward to facing. If you have access to such partners, or friends, this is pure gold. Always works.
3. If I haven’t done any of these things, and I’m at my desk not feeling it, I “plant the seed” anyway. Because I’ve done it too many times. I know if my mood is not there, I’ll start surfing the web or whatever, so I must inject myself with “the mood.” The soil of creativity is not ready for me.
For this purpose, I have my FAIL-SAFE SCREENPLAY. A professional screenplay I’ve chosen to inspire me during such moments. I usually only have to read about 10 pages and I’m ready to write (see screenplay writing tip #3.
For example, I’m writing a sci-fi ensemble script right now and my “fail safe” is “Saving Private Ryan.” Its similar in tone, I know the movie well, and it was a very successful movie, so I trust it to provide me the right guidance.
Choose your FAIL-SAFE SCRIPT well. It should fit your story. I generally pick a script that’s the same “Save the Cat” genre. My sci-script is “Golden Fleece” and so is “Private Ryan.” But you can apply any measures, if STC is not your thing.
I would advise it’s a movie you know well and even enjoy watching. It must feel like you’re watching that movie when you’re reading said screenplay. The images should project in your mind. This effect will be infectious when you find that you actually WANT to write. Your desire to write will not even be noticed. It’s like receiving a pain killer before the procedure. You will be blissfully into your own story before you know it. Of all my screenwriting tips to heed – plant that seed.
Screenwriting Tips – #8 Readers
“Will you read my screenplay?” I was asked the dreaded question twice recently. By very good friends. These guys have never asked me to read anything. So, I said “yes.”
I imagined agonizing over 110 pages of muddy material with too much dialogue, thin descriptions, badly developed characters and even resented being asked. How can my friends – guys I have known for years, decades – do this to me? Money, blood or even a kidney I would consider. But reading an amateur screenplay?
Of course, I’m frequently on the other end. I’m always asking friends to read my screenplays. Some of them show great enthusiasm and get back to me quickly, while others act like they’ll read it and I never hear about it again, while others simply take a lot longer than I’d like. I’m thus very cautious when I embark on the journey of asking someone to read my scripts.
Because people HATE reading scripts. Hate it. Because there are more screenwriters in the world, and thus there are more horrible screenwriters in the world. If you ask someone to read your screenplay, they will already think it sucks. And people already HATE to read.
Reading an amateur screenplay is like asking someone to eat sand.
Yet, it is a necessary evil. You need to have a group of people you trust to read your drafts and tell you what they HONESTLY think. And then, it’s up to you to select the parts of their opinion you can use to amplify your screenplay. Without this, it’s next to impossible to write a good screenplay. You MUST hear and HANDLE THE TRUTH.
I have thus created these reader screenplay writing tips that you really, must take to heart.
The 10 Commandments of Asking People to Read your Screenplay
1.Thou Shalt Not tell Thy Reader how Amazing Thy script is. It’s okay to say you’re excited about your accomplishment and how hard you worked. But don’t tell your reader “this is an incredible story and you will love every page.” People wince when you tell them THEIR opinion (especially before they’ve had a chance to form one). You are offending them by assuming what they think. That’s not an emotion you want to create when you’re already asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Just say, “I worked very hard on this script and I could really use your honest opinion.”
2. Thou Shalt Allow Thy Reader a Way Out. It’s hard to find people to read your shit. It really is. The group I have has been cultivated over years. If one of them went blind, I would be lost. That’s why I try to make it as easy on them as possible. I want them to read my scripts until they’re 90. That’s why, sometimes, in my early drafts, I tell them if they don’t like the first 15 pages, to put it down. Why? Because in Hollywood, they won’t even get past the first 15. If those pages suck, you’re dead in the water. Give your readers an out. Torture them as little as possible. And ask why those first 15 sucked. And LISTEN very attentively.
3. Thou Shalt Pitch Thy Story to Thy Reader. While it’s important not to tell your reader their opinion before they’ve formed it, it can be crucial to tell them what they’re about to read like it’s an exciting movie you just watched. By doing this, you do two things:
- a) test how much YOU know your own story and
- b) gauge how interested they are in reading your script.
If this Reader appears in agony already, you may want to reconsider having them read your script or get on your hands and knees and express what a huge favor it will be to read a story they’re obviously not interested in.
4. Thou Shalt Offer Thy Reader an Offering. People love presents. Even more than they hate reading screenplays. If your reader loves wine, bring them a bottle of wine. If your reader loves chocolate, buy them a bar of chocolate. You feel me? Give this to them, before you ask them to read your screenplay.
In Chinese, the definition of “present” is “giving before taking.” Why? Because the concept of a “present” has worked for centuries. Your screenplay will be read much more quickly this way. But please don’t give them a present when it’s time for their opinion. You want the truth. Their truth, anyway.
5. Thou Shalt Not Waste all of Thy Readers in One Draft. You want your readers’ opinions to be fresh. That means, if you have 6 readers, pick 2 to read your first draft, 2 to read your second, and so on. Don’t waste all 6 readers with your first draft. Ration. Pick and choose based on their personalities.
6. Thou Shalt Be Ready to Hear Thy Script Sucks. If you’re not ready to hear the worse, if you’re not ready to be humiliated, seriously, pick another line of work. This industry is vicious. Only the thickest skin survives (hence, all the plastic surgery). Be ready to hear that you script sucks and accept it as that person’s honest opinion. It doesn’t mean your script sucks. But this reader may have valid points, if you choose to listen to them.
7. Thou Shalt Not Ask Thy Readers to Read Thy Screenplay Again. Avoid making people read the SAME script more than once. The fresh opinion has spoiled. People already HATE reading. Don’t make them do it twice. Or risk receiving a corrupted opinion. You want fresh perspective of your screenplay. You don’t want a GMO version.
8. Thou Shalt Listen to Thy Reader and Ask Questions. Whether your script is great or it sucks, it is very important that you LISTEN to your READER. That means, you shut your mouth and HEAR what they say. You’ve been locked in your script for months and you no longer can judge it correctly.
This person’s point of view is gold because it is NOT CORRUPTED. You are CORRUPTED. You’ve read this thing a million times. You need a virgin opinion. Ask questions, and then shut up again and HEAR their opinion.
You’re not here to tell them why you didn’t develop a character because you work 5 jobs or why you named your protagonist “Chester.” You’re here to ask if that chase scene was boring or if the joke about The Statue of Liberty is funny. This is a great chance especially for material you’ve been on the fence about. Ask and you shall receive. The truth.
9. Thou Shalt Take Thy Reader’s Opinions with a Grain of Salt. While the THIRD PERSON perspective is extremely valuable – and I can’t stress this enough – it is just as important to not give this Reader too much power. Meaning, remember that you’re the writer. Remember that you have a vision. This person’s opinion is here to serve that vision. Study their faces when they talk about your script. Study their eyes. Watch them glow or look repelled based on something they read. And then, pick and choose the portions of their opinion that best serve your story. I’m not saying, discard the Readers who hate your script and embrace the Readers that love your script, mind you.
I’m saying, pick apart the opinions and “sense” what to follow. Something a Reader will say will trigger an idea, an epiphany, something you hadn’t thought of. This happens to me with every script. Look out for those lightning bolt moments. They’re better than gold. And your Reader will feel great that they helped you with such a crucial element.
10. Thou Shalt Beware of Compliments. Have you seen “Whiplash”? The worse two words in the English language… “good job.” There’s only one person you want to hear that from. The person writing you the check when you sell your screenplay. You wouldn’t even waste your time writing this script if you didn’t think it was a great idea. So, it’s a great idea. End of story. You don’t need to hear that again. You need to be attentive to what’s not working and fix it. For the love of God, do not ask your readers, “so the script was really good, right?” You will never get to the Promised Land with that question.
Harnessing a Reader’s opinion is a skill in itself. Most professionals, such as Woody Allen, have a group of people they trust to pick apart their screenplays. Remember that you want to hear any malfunction about your script from the people who do not write the check, so that you can blow away the person that WRITES THE CHECK.
BTW, the two friends who showed me their scripts actually wrote good scripts. They need work, but it was a tremendous relief that they were good. Because I would have told them the script sucked if I had to. Because I want the same thing.
The truth. You must handle the truth, dear screenwriters.
Screenwriting Tips – #9 Momentum Killers
When I started writing, it was on something called a “word processor.” This machine wasn’t a computer or a typewriter, but a purgatory of both. You could write stuff and decide if it should be typed. It wasn’t as convenient as computers today, but it also didn’t have internet and the ability to play DVDs and read email — because the internet, DVDs and email did not exist at this time. The only thing I had to worry about was writing. One can argue that it was more convenient. I certainly wrote in higher volumes back then.
There were less “momentum killers.” Why are these monstrosities so dangerous to writing?
Insider screenplay writing tip: because screenwriting, writing of any kind, is fueled by momentum.
You have the idea and you built this idea into an outline and then you write the idea, page by page, dialogue, action, dialogue, sluglines… it feels like writing with a terrible hangover until you “get in the house.” Once you “get in the house,” your brain is doing the writing for you. You want to write MORE than you don’t want to write. But this usually doesn’t happen until the end, maybe the middle of the screenplay if you’re lucky.
You “get in the house” via momentum. The more momentum, the fastest you get into this zone when your imagination is on cruise control and you’re writing feverishly. The “momentum killer’s” job is to prevent you from “getting in the house.” They want you start and stop and start and stop like a really old car with sugar in its gas tank. You must by all means…
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
You know the “momentum killer’s” motivation, but what are their identities? What and who are these anti-writing monstrosities? Think of all the things you are asked to do when you WATCH A MOVIE.
1) Turn off your cell phone.
You’re writing a great piece of dialogue when you suddenly feel a vibration in your leg. It’s your cell phone. You’ll check it later. But what if it’s… Steven Spielberg? You’ve never met him, but who the hell knows. You don’t want to keep Steven waiting. So, you check to see who called. Okay, it’s not Steve, it’s just a spam email from Film Independent. Okay, back to your dialogue. Phone vibrates again. You think it’s Steven…. IT’S NOT STEVEN. If you want to write, get rid of the phone.
Cell phones are the greatest momentum killers on Earth. Shit, you might even see Steven Spielberg on the streets, when your phone vibrates and you turn away from the director of ET and Raiders to see if someone more important texted you. Just as you would not talk, text or skype while watching a movie, why would you do it while writing one?
How to Discard this Momentum Killer:
When you’re writing, keep your phone as far away from you as possible. Put it where you can’t see it, hear it, feel it. You want this device across town. Even seeing the back of your phone will make you feel like you should check to see if Steven finally emailed you (it doesn’t matter if you’ve never contacted him). Stop killing momentum.
2) Don’t talk during the movie.
Now that you’ve tossed your phone in your unwashed sock and tossed that sock in a drawer underneath all your dirty clothes in the farthest room from you, you can now go back to that piece of dialogue. Except that your buddy comes over and needs to talk, even though you’re telling him that your writing right now.
Just like you wouldn’t want someone to talk during a movie you’re watching, you need to treat writing a movie the same way. This is why movies have really loud soundtracks. And you can take advantage of this.
How to Discard this Momentum Killer:
Put in earphones and turn up the music. You take writing so seriously, if you have baby, someone is watching that baby because you wouldn’t want to bring a crying baby into a movie so you don’t want one while you’re writing a movie. You don’t hear crying, calling, talking… because you are writing. The building could be on fire and you won’t know. Because you want that momentum.
3) Shelter the five senses.
For example, you don’t want to be around smelly foods. Like the guy who brings Chinese food in the movie theatre. That kind of distraction is a momentum genocide. Protect smell, protect sight, protect sound, protect taste, protect feel. All five. You need all of them when you’re at the movies and right now, you are writing a movie.
How to Discard this Momentum Killer:
Create your writing space and chisel the DO NOT ENTER sign on the door. If you don’t have a room, find a space and put your guard dog in front of you. Do whatever it takes to LET PEOPLE KNOW you are writing and don’t enter that sacred spot. And seriously, they won’t.
4) Movie snacks.
Just like you like your popcorn and soda during the movie, you want to feel ready to write with nutrients, fiber, etc. I’m not saying to eat popcorn and drink soda while writing, that doesn’t work for me. I’ll crash and burn. But you do need to eat something.
How to Discard this Momentum Killer:
Don’t put yourself in the position of making food because you’re so hungry, or making a market run, or any momentum killer like that. Have your writing snacks near you. If you get hungry, you want your nutrients near you so can continue with your momentum.
Don’t you hate when you have to go to the bathroom during the best part of the movie? This happened to my friend, Lee during Episode VII, when the Empire blew up that planet. He went to take a leak and missed the entire destruction.
How to Discard this Momentum Killer:
You want to take care of all pottying ahead of time, or time it so it happens after. Especially number two. That’s a momentum massacre. You don’t want to be in the middle of writing great dialogue when that happens… unless you’re okay with taking your laptop with you?
Screenwriting “Momentum Killers” come in many shapes and sizes today. Identify what they are. And if you’re serious about writing, destroy them. Maybe you’ll miss them at the beginning (MKs can be soooo cute and cuddly), but once you “get in the house” you’ll feel like a million bucks and desire to write… so you can make that million bucks.
Screenwriting Tips – #10 Maximize by Mouth
I fell asleep a lot in high school, but when I think back on it, my need to stare at my own eyelids only occurred during two class periods: first period and fifth period. First period, because I hated, hated, HATED waking up early. And if I could get away with it, I would catch a few extra minutes in first period. But this also happened in Fifth period. Periods 2,3,4,6… I was generally awake, and although I was never an amazing student, I never suffered from the narcoleptic fits of periods 1 and 5. I know I needed more sleep in 1st period, but what is the mystery of why I fell asleep in 5th period?
Fifth period is the period that comes right after lunch. As an American, you are pretty much used to accepting the lethargic, yawn-worthy, sleep deprived sensation of the post-lunch blues. But in reality, you’re just taught that. You don’t have to eat the carbo/sugar/salt-laden lunches that knock you out.
This analysis is strictly for writers; but really, you can apply this to any line of work. I know if you’re an American reading this, it’s probably the last thing you want to hear, but you can get so much more out of yourself with this single script writing tip:
Eating the Right Way to Maximize your Writing
I’m not here to tell you, stop eating from McDonald’s dollar menu (if that even still exists) or from Subway’s Eat Fresh Menu (in light of Jared Vogel’s crimes, “Eat Fresh” is probably no longer the slogan); I’m just saying, there are so many things going against you when you write, why not conquer the simplest part, at least when you’re about to start writing.
Every Writer’s Diet is Different
Everybody is different. That is the theme when it comes to this writing habit. Maybe you can eat a bunch of Snickers bars and knock out a screenplay in a few days, I don’t know, but my approach is similar to an athlete. And if you’re going for a Gold medal, you won’t throw fried chicken, sugary waters, and a dozen donuts in your stomach every time you train. You just won’t. This diet is strictly based on my experience. And I’ll tell you a secret… The Muse has never visited me when I ate like there was no tomorrow.
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
(Note* this screenwriter’s diet is to be applied before a screenwriting shift)
1. Avoid sugars. I am a caffeine junkie. I would mainline it, if I could. I try to keep my espressos under two a day (easier said than done). But I never put sugar in it. I don’t drink Gatorade, Coke, Vitamin Water, Red Bulls, sodas of any kind, fruit juices, any bullshit healthy drink (anything called “Smart” is a red-light). I’m not a diet expert, or a health expert, the sugar simply just knocks me out when I sit down to write. So, I just don’t have it. Yes, this includes bread (including the bread on most sandwiches).
INSTEAD: If eating tons of sugar is part of your everyday eating routine, don’t have sugar when you write. Any. Not even a grain. It’s probably in whatever you’re eating or drinking anyway. What I do is always look at the sugar content of anything I buy and if it’s higher than 8 mg per serving, I probably won’t buy it if I’m about to write.
I say this with pride…. my main beverage is water. It took many years to achieve this near impossible task. I was a chugger of sodas, juices, you name it, but now, when it’s not coffee, it’s water (which I even have when I eat junk food – if I want a gassy drink, I opt for soda water or San Pellegrino).
Why? Because water helps me write! The Muse likes to visit me after I had a glass of water. If you absolutely need flavor, squeeze a lemon or lime in it.
In terms of bread, eat Ezekiel bread, it feels great in your stomach and keeps you going. You WANT to WRITE after you’ve eaten this stuff.
2. Avoid fried or junk food. I love fried chicken as much as the next person. I really do. But when I make the mistake of ordering it before a writing shift, by the time I sit down, writing is the VERY LAST THING I WANT TO DO. That is never a feeling you want. Although fried chicken is delicious when you’re biting into that breast or thigh, you pay the price when you write. This goes for any junk food.
INSTEAD: You probably want the taste of salt more than the crispy, fried sensation of animal skin. I say, if you really crave it, have it with something super healthy. I actually apply this eating strategy when I crave the worse food. Once I ate two pieces of Popeye’s Chicken with two grapefruits. I felt no ill effects after. The trick is, the more junk food you have, the more whole fruits and/ or veggies you need to counter it. If you yawn, you have not balanced it enough and you’ll pay the price when you write.
3. Limit dairy products. Cheese, milk, butter, milkshakes, cheesecakes, mac and cheese, and so on… like 90% of foods have it, but if you want your writing shift to be intense, popping with juicy dialogue and inspiration, limit this. If you’re getting a sandwich with cheese on it, don’t ask for extra cheese, in fact, if you really want to write well, ask for NO CHEESE.
INSTEAD: Trust me, I have written under every condition. I ate badly for years before I discovered how eating affects writing. I know it’s too much to ask you to avoid dairy products. Just limit it. Don’t go crazy with piles of cheese, or cheese dips, or a four-cheese pizza. I’ve seen it all. I’ve eaten it all. And then forced myself under cloggy duress to write well. Life would have been a thousand times easier if I didn’t put that stuff in my mouth, then stomach before hitting the keyboard.
4. Don’t drink alcohol. I’ve written drunk, but not for very long. I know it worked for Hemingway (who eventually blew his brains out), but it never, ever works for me. Yes, I’ve written after a glass of red wine or two, but my need to rest and chill becomes overpowering and I get a lot less done than I want.
INSTEAD: If you must drink, do it one hour or less before your writing shift is over. I have employed this practice when I write in countries that have delicious red wine (like Portugal).
5. Eat fruits and vegetables whole. I know, it’s like a punishment, but it really does work. You feel it in your brain, and you just write more efficiently. I used to never eat vegetables when I was kid. I skipped it, and my parents let me do it because I absolutely refused to put anything green in my mouth.
Now, I didn’t say eat ONLY vegetables. I said, make sure it’s part of your lunch. The problem with veggies is that it can take a while to eat and its rarely filling. And you need a full stomach to write, especially with all the coffee you drink. By all means, eat that crap with a piece of meat, or lentils or nuts or whatever.
HOW: “But fruits and vegetables repel me!” (you think)! Calm down. The trick is, as it took me like 25-years to learn, you have to find out which fruits and vegetables you like to eat. I like tomatoes, spinach, pineapple, but you may like something else. Find out. Chop them up and make sure they’re ready to be eaten when your stomach (and brain) is asking for more fuel. Because a good writing shift is exhausting and hunger inducing.
Get a juicer. That’s what they’re for. Juice all that crap up and have it with your burger. Somehow, get the stuff in your body and watch the Muse hang out with you longer than you imagined.
Maximize by Mouth Epilogue
"You have a choice... eat like there's no tomorrow or write like there's no tomorrow."
Notice I did not say not to smoke or drink coffee or do cocaine. This dissertation is only about food… you know, the things you have to put in your body everyday no matter what happens. You can’t avoid it. Not even if you’re a Super Model.
At some point, you have to eat. My thing is, why not make that thing you have to maximize your writing, instead of doing the opposite, making you feel like writing is the LAST THING YOU WANT TO DO… which is what writing already feels like. Eating can be your single greatest ally.
You have a choice… eat like there’s no tomorrow or write like there’s no tomorrow.
Screenwriting Tips – #11 Handwriting
You average 6-8 hours a day on the world wide web. That’s one third of your day. Asking you to do something creative, like screenwriting, or the source of your greatest addiction is like asking a crack addict to cook a gourmet meal inside a crack den. “How else can I write?” you ask yourself. “I need my keyboard, my Final Draft app, my access to Wikipedia and so on…” But do you really?
Writers have been doing it for thousands of years without computers, without typewriters, hell, even without notebooks. Sometimes they chiseled entire books on stone tablets. The computer is merely today’s writing instrument of choice. You don’t have to be on this computer to be writing. That is just the limited way you choose to see writing. “I know no other way!” you protest.
Well, you could write like we wrote in kindergarten. Remember, it was called…
“But the pros all have Final Draft, Save the Cat app, a dogeared copy of Mckee’s story,” you insist. There’s two writers at least who are the highest form of movie writing who hand-write all their first drafts. These professional screenwriters have a lot of script writing tips up their sleeves: Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino. Liberate yourself from the shackles of technology and do it like Woody and Quentin Tarantino… who knows, maybe you’ll crank out a “Hannah and Her Sisters” or “True Romance.”
A) Fill in the Blank Space like Wood Allen
Since Woody Allen began writing, he hand-writes all his first drafts. He’s not even limited to a notebook. Once on a European vacation, a bored Woody scribbled the entire film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” on hotel napkins. He’s not limited to laptops or notebooks. He just writes. To paraphrase the Woodman, he sees a blank space and wants to “fill” it.
Since 1972, Woody has written at least one movie per year. How?
If you didn’t deal with Spam emails, Facebook, iChat, Twitter, Pinterest, and so on and so forth, you would remove 95% of your obstacles. And then you could just deal with the challenge of you know… JUST WRITING A STORY.
That’s all Woody does. Once complete, he types his screenplay on the same type writer his mom bought him when he was 16. They don’t make ’em like they used to. I know some people who have had over a dozen laptops in just a few years and zero screenplays. Woody has used the same friggin’ typewriter for like 50 some years and he’s got about the same number of screenplays.
B) Protect your Creativity like Quentin Tarantino
There may be something you don’t know about the great Quentin Tarantino. He can barely spell. Apparently, the most basic word is a huge challenge to the writer of “Pulp Fiction.” For example, “Inglourios Basterds” is titled that way for a reason. The writer/director insisted it was spelled the way he spells… like the most incompetent third grade student in class. A high school dropout, Tarantino lacks the functions that most amateur screenwriters covet. The need for perfect grammar and spelling. I can’t tell you how many amateurs I meet who consider this MORE important than character development.
How the hell can this imbecile get from point A to point Z to tell a story? Very simple. He just “writes” it. In a notebook. With multicolored pens. He uses the variety of colors for rewriting. QT says his first draft resembles the notebook of a psychotic killer. Even before he was successful, QT had someone correct his spelling for him and also retype it for him. Waste of money? What about all the seminars, boot camps and apps some people buy?
QT is only worried about ONE THING. Telling a great story. Maybe he doesn’t always achieve this, but his track record is pretty damn good. Love or hate him, just understand that the man is deeply protective of his creativity. He won’t let silly things like grammar, spelling, or typing get in the way of his imagination’s freedom.
Thomas Edison once said he didn’t need to know anything about math because he could just hire someone to do math. Tarantino doesn’t spell or understand grammar because… he can just hire someone who’s good at it to take care of it for him. Can you imagine what a nightmare auto-correct would be for him?
Telling a story is a skill we are all born with. We tell stories all day to other people, whether we’re good at it or not. When we story-tell to someone else, a loved one, a colleague at work, or an acquaintance, we’re not worried about grammar, spelling, or even telling the story in order. We just STORY-TELL.
You don’t have to fire up the laptop, tablet, or any other device to write really well, as Woody and Quentin have demonstrated in repeated fashion. In fact, eliminating technology may allow your imagination to flourish more profoundly than even you could have imagined. A pen and notebook may very well be the pick axe to the prison of technology you’ve been sentenced to.
Give this writing tip a try, and you just might finally break out!
BONUS Screenplay Writing Tips!
QT and Woody aren’t the only screenwriters who follow this pro tip. Many other professional screenwriters profess this tip. In fact, novelists as well, including Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain novelist) who didn’t start writing until in her 50s – no wonder her writing tips include “going slow” by handwriting.
Screenwriting Tips – #12 Visit your Library
There is a place frolicked by college students and homeless people alike, a place that assembles collections of thoughts from human history that welcomes you to sit and ponder your own life, thoughts, and if you’re writing a story, your story. Since we are creatures of mimic, this place is a tremendous prize for a writer, since everyone there is working, you can’t help but force yourself into “the work mind.” It is a temple of focus.
But not only that, you are paying for it (with your taxes). Not only that, aside from screenwriting at your local library, the institution offers limitless inspirational benefits, which ultimately lead to the betterment of your story. There isn’t much that goes wrong for your story in the library. Here’s why you should…
Visit your Local Library
I really think the reason why libraries aren’t used enough is because they’re free. And people look down on free things, for some reason. They’d rather pay $5 for a latte at Starbucks where the contagious feeling is not always to work. A place where you just gave a corporation $5 for a glass of sugar feels better, more social, there’s music from every era imaginable, there’s life (supposedly) whereas the library is quiet, concentrated and “serious.” It’s probably reminiscent of detention.
But I’m going to break that myth right now and give you 5 REASONS why taking advantage of your local library can amplify your screenwriting and in fact, why it’s superior to most places when it comes to the act of screenwriting.
Screenwriting Tips in Practice
1. If you work at home like I do, here is a place that welcomes you to visit for the sole purpose of working. You get to get out of your house, take a journey somewhere to work, and park your ass in designated place – and no one will ever judge you for it. No questions asked. As long as you’re there to work, you can be there as long as they’re open. No rent necessary, no double latte necessary, and there’s everything here (I will elaborate on this).
2. The WI-FI code is optional. Yes, if you need WI-FI to write your screenplay (I still don’t know how the two coalesce), there is one available for you. But you have the option of not finding out what the WI-FI code is, and just SCREEN WRITE. I suggest the latter. Trust me, this is one of my best screenwriting tips. Try it.
3. Remember when I said that everything’s here? Well, I already covered the WI-FI, but libraries also print stuff for you. You don’t have to wait in line at Kinko’s or anything if you need pages printed out. Now, I don’t really print out stuff anymore, but I know writers that still need that. Check.
4. Remember when I said that everything’s here? Did I already say that? There aren’t just books at the library, there’s DVDs. Movies you can rent. For free. In fact, after Netflix decimated the DVD market (by eliminating their nemesis, Blockbuster, then refusing to renew most titles), only a handful of video stores still exist. The majority of DVDs survive in the library. That’s because people who thought they’d never need a DVD again donated to their library. So, if there’s a movie you can’t get anywhere, the library probably has it. What? They even have new movies you can rent. Wow, this is where my taxes go? Why pay Amazon $4 when you can watch movies for free? Actually, you already paid for that rental with your taxes. But why pay twice?
5. And here’s my favorite reason why the library is downright evangelical for a screenwriter. When you feel like taking a break, you wander through aisles and aisles of books, galaxies of words, letters, and after enough trudging, drowning in all the thoughts, ideas (and DVDs) around you, you can’t wait to get back in that seat and just write. And you do. Because you’re consumed in words, adjectives, vowels, etc.
Yes, it helps that you have to shut up and turn off your phone in the library, but in the end, it’s the gigantic, celestial hug of words that immerses you in the world of words… words that were created, sweated over, or just jotted down for the fuck it. I feel sorry for screenwriters that don’t know this mecca exists, ready to welcome them. I’ve written in libraries all over the planet. In Budapest, Istanbul, Paris, Lisbon (where you can buy a great lunch with red wine for $3) and I can tell you, it’s a universal wonderment. My writing is doubly good in these places. The big L makes a world of difference.
Screenwriting Tips – #13 Oralize
The legendary Paul Schrader says that he does not write his screenplay until he can say it out loud for 40 minutes to a captive audience. That’s how he knows he has a screenplay, if he can sustain 40 minutes of narration. I have never practiced this and as writers go, the last thing you want to do is meet a bunch of people and talk your 120 pages. It sounds like a complete nightmare, right?
But in actuality, a screenplay is written to be said aloud. It is after all, the blueprint to a movie. And in a movie, there is dialogue, expressed by actors. So you see, your screenplay was never meant to be hidden in the privacy of your mind. Your dialogue was meant to be spoken. And heard. And if you never hear it, you may never be able to judge properly if what is there, should be there or not. Learn how to…
A painter studies his canvass by renting a loft with lots of space so he can stand back and see the whole picture. A singer can study her music by hearing her songs played back to her. But a screenwriter, he usually assesses how effective his pages are by reading it, over and over again in his mind. Only one of these scenarios is NOT shared by the audience. The screenwriter’s. A painter sees his painting the way museum visitors see it. A singer hears her songs played the way her fans would hear it. But a screenwriter rarely hears it aloud.
How much more would the screenwriter understand if he heard his words spoken aloud? I discovered recently reading to my newborn. As a way to take care of my own professional needs and tend to the offspring, I often read OUT LOUD to him screenplays, including my own pages. And something happens when you hear it, even if it’s badly performed (in my case, 100% badly performed). You’re seeing the dialogue tested in reality for the first time and you instantly know if it works or doesn’t. It is so magical, why don’t screenwriters use this FREE tool more frequently?
Scriptwriting Tips in Practice
1) THE TABLE READ… Invite your friends over to read your script. Cook them dinner. Get them drunk. But definitely give them the privilege to read your script. They will do it. People not in the film business love to read screenplays. It’s exotic to them. What works and what doesn’t work will become as clear as day, I promise you. You will cringe, but you will also have moments of pride. It will help you take your script to the next level.
2) THE NARCISSISTIC READ… In this day in age, we have all some kind of recording device. And who wants to invite a bunch of people to your house anyway? You haven’t sold that big screenplay, what makes these people think you can buy them dinner. This is when you use your recording device, smartphone, tablet, to RECORD your own reading of your entire screenplay. You can play this back to yourself in any circumstance… waiting in line to pay bills, the post office, the DMV. What you will hear are very clear flaws in your script that you are, by now, thanking your lucky stars that only YOU HEARD. You now know exactly what to fix.
3) THE BLUNT READ… okay, forget recording yourself. You’ve been working on the same scene for 3 weeks. You have no idea if it works or not. You’ve rewritten it for the umpteenth time. The only thing you haven’t tried is reading it OUT LOUD. Do it right now. This very second. In your own space? What just happened? Did everyone at Starbucks just pivot to you and think you’re losing your mind? No, because you probably whispered it if you’re in a public space. This is what happened. That beautiful dialogue you wrote suddenly makes you feel ashamed of yourself. Those extra adjectives in your action stick out like weeds. The name of that character sounds stupid. BUT… now you know exactly what to fix to make this scene work.
BONUS Screenplay Writing Tips!
And if you can’t bring yourself to do any of these, try the SCHRADER READ, as described above. The point to this technique is that you’ve had it all wrong about screenplays. They’re oral, not literally. ORAL. And the sooner you treat them that way, the better you will write.
It’s no accident that many great screenwriters are also actors. Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, John Cassavettes… and William Shakespeare (enough of his plays have been converted for Willy to be considered a screenwriter). These guys had the greatest screenwriting tool available to them, they could act out their own writing… and well… to test out their script.
Apparently, Quentin Tarantino (who originally aspired to be an actor, not a director) read most of “Pulp Fiction” to Stacy Sherr from various pay phones while traveling in Europe. That’s how he knew he had something great in his hands.
I just shared with you my lucky 13 screenwriting tips and tricks you can use RIGHT NOW to trick out your script. Heck, these tips can even be applied to all writing forms, they’re writing tips that will help you cultivate brilliant writing habits.
So let’s recap these screenwriting tips, shall we?
Script Tip #1: Soundtrack your Script
Script Tip #2: Crush Hard
Script Tip #3: Channel the Greats
Script Tip #4: Stand up to your Script
Script Tip #5: Sublimation
Script Tip #6: Scriptment
Script Tip #7: Plant a Seed
Script Tip #8: Readers
Script Tip #9: Destroy the Momentum Killers
Script Tip #10: Maximize by Mouth
Script Tip #11: Handwrite
Script Tip #12: Visit the Library
Script Tip #13: Speak up