Posted by: hollyburgh | April 16, 2012

The Mystical Art of Screenwriting, or Tips on How Not to Get Completely Discouraged

by Amelia Ohm

The judging of short scripts for the fourth annual Film Factory screenwriting competition is currently underway. Maybe you entered and maybe you didn’t, but the unfortunate and cold hard fact of the matter is that you’re probably not going to win. If you are serious enough about screenwriting to have actually submitted a script to the competition, you probably already realized this.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but I’m also good at math. The odds of winning this competition are better than most similar contests (based solely on the fact that the regional aspect yields fewer submissions), yet still slim. It doesn’t mean your script isn’t good, or even great, it just means that someone else’s was deemed superior. Try not to despair, unless of course that inspires your writing, in which case wallow away. “No” is a common word to hear in Hollywood—or Hollyburgh—especially when you’re a screenwriter. Your rejection from this competition may be the first of many, and the hollow feeling that follows the initial blow is one that we as screenwriters become tragically familiar with as we chase down the dream.

Sometimes watching someone toss your script aside, along with the five agonizing months you invested into it, can be harder than watching golden retriever puppies be put through a meat grinder. Screenwriters know that screenwriting isn’t easy. Oftentimes we find ourselves staring at a white screen for hours until a whimsical falling leaf inspires new creativity and determination. Two hours of vigorous writing produce a scene slightly subordinate in quality to one from Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Two hours of Coldplay quells our sadness, and once we’ve pulled ourselves together, we try again. This is the most important part—to keep writing. It is a difficult process and whether we’re first-time writers or seasoned pros, we could all use a little help. After a semester of formal screenwriting instruction at Pitt with Carl Kurlander and having spent endless hours writing and re-writing, I have compiled a list of writing tips to share with my fellow aspiring screenwriters. Feel free to add your own inspiration-inducing tips in the comments section below, and happy writing!

  1. Before you write, do some reading. I recommend either Syd Fields’ Screenplay or Robert McKee’s Story. Fields’ book outlines the essential structure found in each and every Hollywood screenplay in simple and understandable terms. McKee delves into the finer points of screenwriting. His book contains invaluable information but also tends to be a bit wordy—if you don’t believe me watch Adaptation, which is my second tip.
  2. Watch Adaptation. The script is phenomenal and watching Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman struggle to produce a screenplay will prevent you from descending to the depths of despair when your entire second act falls apart. (If you did step one, you know what I’m referring to.)
  3. Read some more. Read scripts and watch movies with an attentive and critical mind. Be aware of the devices discussed by Fields and McKee and pay attention to how they translate to the page and the screen.
  4. Find your characters. Eccentricities, dramatic dialogue, and plot twists don’t equate to a great screenplay—great characters do. You should know your characters on a personal and intimate level: their strengths, their weaknesses, their quirks, and their pasts. Their words and actions throughout the screenplay should be consistent with their fabricated, yet authentic personalities and they should be constantly growing, particularly in the second act.
  5. With that being said, every movie needs a dramatic arc. It’s easiest to write what you know—especially as a beginner. Unless you’re prepared to do extensive research, put your characters into a context that you are familiar with and understand. Then, challenge them. Put your characters into situations that force them to act, and let their character be revealed through their actions.
  6. Every American film attempts to convey a distinct ideological message. It has been said of American Cinema that every scene within every film is a microcosm of the entire film—meaning that every scene reflects the larger message of the film. Attempt to weave the overarching message of your film into every scene you write.
  7. In screenwriting, no line of description or sentence of dialogue is incidental. The inclusion of every word in a final screenplay should be motivated by some authorial intention to reveal character or convey crucial plot information. If you are not sure why a certain descriptor or detail is in your screenplay, either figure it out or cut it. Screenplays are expensive to turn into movies; therefore, every page should be fundamental to the story you are trying to tell.
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