As writers we make choices – I am weary of ever claiming or thinking there is a right or wrong way of writing. There is only one way of writing – the individual writer’s way. This is something it took me a long time to realise. This is why the one size fits all books must be considered as aids not the biographical works of how to write. Successful screenwriters have found a myriad of roads to get it on the page.
Here are just a few pointers I found useful when learning about my own craft – again, only use what’s useful for your work. Some of my suggestions evolved after the first draft – that’s the draft where first you get all that stuff on the inside – out. Then the work is edited to what you want to show on screen.
characters – how well we know our characters or get to know them? Do you know the character’s reaction in any given situation? This is the reality of knowing a character. Once you know this, you know the character is real. When they surprise you, that’s development. Is their reaction consistent with a shift or change in their own character?
dialogue – every person speaks with an inflection which is often more of an indication of their character than the person – hence why we love actors who find the essence of a character and bring them to life not just with the voice but the entire persona
story – does your story add up? if a story has holes, we could say our story does not matter. Plot rich consistency matters if you write and care for an audience. It was useful for me to understand my relationship with my audience whether I have one or not. I believe a creative work of art only comes to life with the audience otherwise it lives in the bubble of the artist’s creation. This is the impetus for my work.
beats – what and where are the changes in the drama? Do they change and move the plot and character forward and are the beats noticeable by the audience? Rising tension for instance. Todd Click has written a book on beats. He also wrote an article giving examples of beats showing similarities between the plays of Shakespeare and Spielberg/Lucas film Raiders of the Lost Ark written by Lawrence Kasdan. Please see tiny.cc/ai9n0w
act – emotions must be felt in screenwriting. Go on some acting courses, understand the ease and difficulties of expressing emotion in the character’s world. Acting helped Callie Khouri, Quentin Tarantino, Moliere, Shakespeare (read Hamlet) and countless others. It is also what puts off writers. Sometimes it is unpleasant but keep going.
theme – does your theme have meaning and resonance? A theme is in your entire story and sometimes in every detail not in an obvious way though. Theme is vital – consider the various stages in life, school, work, home – when your life has no meaning, you absolutely have to do something and a film is no different. The great myth is films tell people how to live, no writers simply show how this character found a way to live or die. Music in the words of the great Schopenhauer already has theme – art including great screenwriting work hard so emotion and logic can meet creatively to create depth
truth – to paraphrase Robert Mckee in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, phew!, you may lie in life but not in your art – So as writers it is vital we know our work and the intention of our work. I was forced to expand this point because I could not edit it.
prejudices – I am not a fan of negativity in my blog (remember I want to nurture and inspire) but please avoid negative stereotyping because it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As an example. I study movies and sometimes I cannot believe the number of times where male characters get oral sex from disposable girls (also apply to the depiction of race, colour, countries etc). Sometimes the oral sex is supposed to make the boy/men look cool and other times funny. It just makes me think something else. This is the writer’s wishful thinking and this is what they think of girls and worse still, is this their revenge for being unpopular? If you need a sex scene, why is it there? why is it funny? why is it part of the drama? Think best British comedy The Full Monty by Simon Beaufoy (sexual stereotypes are reversed for full comic and social impact), American Pie by Adam Herz (the audience and the girl characters get a chance to make fun out of the boys who stereotype girls and the guys in the audience who actually think this stuff is cool think this movie is for them) and Pretty Woman by Jonathan Frederick Lawton (theme – how true love overcomes prejudices about identity).
I believe it is our job as writers to root out internal and external prejudices and shine a light on them comically or dramatically especially if we are putting them in our work. Not to feel bad? Feelings uncomfortable or otherwise is often just conditioning and it does not define who any of us really are. It is not our job to judge emotional responses but to understand these ways of thinking and the impact on the world of our characters. The sad thing is we do not always understand the sophistication of an audience. They know the writer’s intentions from the work. Know that your audience will be left with the feeling of the identity of the work produced. The audience has gone to be entertained not to do the hard work of trying to understand why our work came out like this or that. Know that and let your characters evolve to much more than the first thing that came out on the page. If there are prejudices, do not fear being controversial but find out why because it will help improve your work and may even help the audience to understand the world. If you do not believe me, screenwriter Paul Schrader says screenwriting improved him as a person. I came to it as a form of self-therapy, I came to it because I had no choice, I came to it because I needed to do this to save myself. Gustave Flaubert said: “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” Perhaps this is why some great writers say writing makes them better people.
Last but not least, read your work out aloud, sit upright with your spine, if you feel emotion going up or down your spine when you read your characters, I believe you have arrived in nirvana. Your work speaks. Not sure where you’ve arrived but it’s some place cool in the writing pantheon.
Here comes the nurturing bit – I want a story with meaning and characters and theme that resonate. Discover what you want and nurture that goal forever?
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