December 2010

SCREENWRITING 101: MAN VS. BLINKING CURSOR


Excerpt from my book “Long Night’s Journey Into Daybreak.”

Here’s what I want you to remember about the screenplay whether you are the writer, the director, or both: know the story inside and out; know the characters inside and out. Make your decisions in order to serve the story and its characters.

Most screenplays employ the traditional three-act structure. Act I (30 pages), first turning point; Act II (60 pages), second turning point—main character at his lowest point; and Act III (30 pages), the climax and resolution. Every story has its own rhythm and its own needs but don’t wander too far off from this basic story-telling template. If the first turning point occurs at page 40 and Act II runs 15 pages, you’ve got some rewriting to do: the story structure is a mess!

Serve the story! Edit out scenes that are not absolutely necessary to the story. Trim the fat. Get to the point. Do the scenes begin somewhere in the middle and do we get out before the end? I kept writing scenes where someone always exited at the end: scene over, I’m leaving… No. Don’t do this. Keep it moving by capturing the essence of the moment and move on!

Serve the characters. Each character must have a point of view. They must speak with their own voice. I find that too often all characters are written with the same voice. They just sound the same, as if lines of dialogue are interchangeable. They should be well rounded and come with some surprises, have weakness as well as strengths. What makes them laugh or cry? What do they fear? …And why? Everyone is different, so make sure that your characters are, too. I recommend writing extensive background notes on each of the main characters. Identify their main flaw. What do they want in life? What prevents them from getting it? By knowing what makes your characters tick, you’ll be able to place them into the story and allow their actions and dialogue to spring forth naturally and believably.

 

Here’s a quick overview about screenplay format. (If you’re not familiar with how a screenplay looks, find some of them on-line or and read them.) There are certain basic rules and characteristics of a professional-looking script starting with Courier font, 12 point, with one-inch margins. Avoid the temptation to make yours unique or cool. Remember that appearances count! The best written screenplay will not even get read by a professional if it looks anything but traditional.

Each scene has a slug line such as: EXT. FENNER’S SERVICE STATION – DAY.

 

Action is written across the full margins explaining to the reader what is taking place.

Michele pulls into the gas pump island. She steps out of the car and looks towards the office.

 

 

 

Dialogue starts 2.75 inches from the left edge and is no more than 35 characters wide including spaces. The character’s name is always capitalized and centered. Below that is the actual dialogue.

FENNER

Sit down and shut up!

A parenthetical indicates how a character is saying the dialogue.

 

FENNER

(laughing)

Sit down and shut up!

Word to the wise here: avoid using parentheticals! They can really get out of hand and, truthfully, many actors scratch them out wherever they appear. They will decide how the dialogue is spoken as they interpret the character. Of course, sometimes you have no choice but to include a parenthetical or two, but easy does it.

Finally, I advise you to write what you know. Write from personal experience. Write with truth and honesty. Give it your personal view of the world, your message. Break the rules if you have to. Do what you must to best serve your story. If your instincts tell you it must be this way, then follow through with it. Trust your instincts above all else, against all advice. No one else knows exactly what you’re striving to accomplish better than you. Trust yourself.

 

I’m just saying…

DIRECTING 101 – GIVE DIRECTION


Excerpt from my book “Long Night’s Journey Into Daybreak“:

So what you really want to do is direct… Well, good luck and God bless! First off, I think it takes a lot of guts to want to direct. It can be demanding, pressure filled, and ego deflating. Like that old Army jingle, you’ll do more before 9 am than most people will do all day. Your reward may also include looming ulcers, mood swings and panic attacks. But your most important reward is that it’s the best damn job in the world. Period.

You’ve got to communicate your vision. What is so great about being the director is that it is your vision that drives the film. You get to make it your way. That’s a wonderful opportunity. But to take full advantage of it, you’ve got to be able to inspire your cast and crew. Make them believe in your dream. Keep them excited and involved. Make them look forward to the next day’s shoot.

Preparation. Know what you’re doing. Know why you’re doing it. If it’s not a script you wrote yourself, then you’d better read it again and again until you know it inside and out. You’ve got to know the value of every scene, every character and each line of dialogue. Some have great weight or value; others do not. Know which is which, because if you spend hours of time and reams of film just to get one shot right, it had better be for a purpose. Know the difference. Know when to move on. Not all of the scenes or shot

compositions will be perfect. Make sure the ones that need to be are.

The most important thing that you do is make decisions. Underline that. Highlight that. You make decisions, lots of them. Some will be brilliant, some will not be. Some will be downright stupid. Make them anyway. The trick to keeping your film moving is not that

you make the RIGHT decision; it’s that you make A decision. The worst thing that you can do is to appear like you can’t make the call. Dammit, it’s your job to make the call.

There are moments when you know it all comes down to how you handle a particular crisis. The real joke is that some of these crises will be real make-or-break stuff, while others will only be your imagination telling you that it’s make-or-break! Yes, directors hallucinate this way. you’ve got to fight hard to see things as they really are. Perspective is a hard thing to keep, but that’s also part of your job.

Finally, look good. You are the leader. Be clean and neat. Men, shave everyday. The rigors of a shooting schedule will wear you down, but by shaving you avoid the appearance that you are worn out. You cannot be worn out. No one wants to bust his ass for a leader who looks like hell. My days began at 5 am and usually ended around midnight. Day after day after day… The cast and crew feed off your energy. They look to you for inspiration, motivation and a sense of purpose. Do everything you can to be worthy of it.

I’m just saying…

YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE


To celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, my wife and I took a cruise to Alaska. One of the excursions we most looked forward to was Dog Mushers Sled Camp near Juneau. We learned about the dogs, sledding and, of course, the famous 1100 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Another thing was there for learning too, if anyone was interested.

I’m always amazed at the little moments that occur when we least expect them, as if the universe is reaching out to tell us something we need to hear. Here’s one such moment:
After a spin around the dirt track on a modified-for-tourists dog sled, one of the camp crew, Josh, led us under a wooden pavilion to give us the history of dog sledding and the creation of the annual Iditarod Race by Joe Redington in the 1970s. The real lesson came during the question and answer session. Josh was asked how he, a boyish-looking young man, came to work as a musher up in Alaska.
Josh related that he had always promised himself that if he were ever to be laid-off from his factory job in his native Indiana, he would go to Alaska to find some adventure. Sure enough, the day came when he was suddenly unemployed. He sold everything he owned that couldn’t fit into one piece of luggage and purchased a one-way plane ticket to Anchorage, in the heart of Alaska.
Once he arrived, he found trouble getting work. So he bought a rifle and a canoe and took to the river. During a stopover in Manley Springs, a place so small that everyone knew everyone else and it was easy to spot an outsider, Josh met Joe Redington, Jr. A professional musher, dog breeder and son of the famous Iditarod Race founder. “Ever thought about mushing?” Joe Jr. asked Josh. He replied, “Not really, but, hey, why not?”
Josh went to work for Joe Jr. helping raise and train the Husky dog-sled team that would race each year in the competition. Josh went on to become a musher himself. He bought some land in Manley Springs, bought some racing dogs for breeding and embarked on a whole new life. All because he had the courage to follow his dream: move to Alaska. Everything else flowed from that single jumping off point.
The lesson here is that it is possible to change your life and reshuffle the deck. It just takes enough nerve to consider what your next step will be and to follow through when that defining moment arrives. And I don’t say that lightly. Josh left his family and friends behind. He set course down river and took a big leap of faith that he wouldn’t drown along the way (both metaphorically and literally). Could you do the same? I know I can, I have and I will again.
Because, sometimes you can’t there from here.
I’m just saying…