A while back, I was on the radio 4 movie show the same day as simon pegg. we were asked what we thought of screenwriting manuals. I dismissed them as compendiums of get-rich-quick clichés. Pegg said that he thought they were really useful. our movies premiered that weekend. your money sucked. mine collapsed. It may well be, I thought, that I’ve been missing something.
I decided to rewatch all my favorite movies, notebook in hand, to find out what made them tick. here are some of my observations. this is not a description of how I write. It’s more like I wish I had written. a map of the rocks on which I perished.
1. write a play
Are you sure you need to write a script? almost any movie takes years. i just did a tv movie for the bbc that took 20 years to go from idea to execution. if you have a great story, it might be worth writing it first as a play or as a book. to bring a film to the world, someone has to love it enough to spend millions of pounds on it, and years of their life. a work costs a few thousand and takes a couple of months. it also makes you a playwright, which is far superior to a screenwriter. And if it’s successful, people will want to make the movie.
2. make the title first
It seems obvious, but you might be surprised. a great title can make a big difference. The musical Oklahoma, as it was initially called, flopped in the provinces, but became a huge hit after they added the exclamation point. Orson Welles said that Paper Moon was such a good title that they wouldn’t need to make the movie, just release the title. if you want a good title, you need it before you start, when you are full of hope. if you look for it later, you end up thinking like a headline writer. If Victor Hugo had waited until Notre-Dame de Paris was over, I would have ended up calling him. I have a hunch.
3. read it to people
It’s easy to fool yourself on the page. tell people your story and watch it. Is there a place where you look at your watch? Are there parts that you unexpectedly feel like you want to skip? guess the ending? turn it into a good anecdote. this also means that if you come across the money at a film festival, you can pitch the story right there. the same applies after you have written the script. Danny Boyle, director of 28 Days Later, has you read your script aloud to him. it is awful. he leaves you nowhere to hide. but save weeks of doubt.
4. forget the three-act structure
all manuals insist on a three-act structure. I think this is a useless model. is static all it really means is that your script must have a beginning, a middle and an end. when you’re shaping things, it’s more helpful to think about suspense. suspense is the hidden energy that holds a story together. connects two points and sends a charge between them. but it doesn’t have to be all action. emotions create their own suspense. In American Splendor, the movie about comic book creator Harvey Pekar, you wait until it hurts for their relationship to work out. secrets are also good for building tension. In a knight’s tale, you worry all the time that someone will find out that William isn’t really Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein.
a delicate art. if a setting is too obvious, you can post a bounty. I remember seeing se7en at a multiplex. When Morgan Freeman said that he would be retiring in a few days, someone yelled, “We’re going to die!” (for once, it wasn’t true). on the other hand, if the configuration doesn’t signal something, it doesn’t generate any suspense. the trick is to create an expectation but fulfill it in a completely unexpected way. i’m going to give the oscar for this to geoffrey chaucer for the tale of the forgiver, where they go looking for death but find a lot of money instead. and the twist is… they plot about it and kill each other.
6. don’t write excuse notes
Sympathy is like crack for industry executives. I’ve had at least one wonderful script of mine mutilated by a sympathy-bitch. yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If the characters are going to do something wrong, Hollywood wants you to write an excuse note. If you look at Thelma and Louise, you’ll see that it’s really just a long note of apology with 20 minutes of fun at the end. the American cop show, on the other hand, gives you characters you couldn’t possibly approve of, or even like. then, when necessary, he gives you another look at them. In a poignant scene, a nasty young drug dealer from the projects stands in a park and says, “Is this still in Baltimore?”
7. avoid the trap of german funk
People tend to set up characters and then have stories happen to them. I think it’s coming from television, where you want the characters to survive the story unchanged, so they can have another adventure next week. it’s like in the crime novel, where the “characterization” means that the detective really likes German 70s funk. and “complex characterization” means his wife leaves him because she doesn’t understand her love of ’70s German funk. In a movie, you have to let the story reveal the character. what happens to juno, getting pregnant, could happen to any teenager. it’s how she reacts that leads you to conclude that she’s charming (or disgusting, depending on your point of view). do it the other way around and it’s like when someone introduces you to one of his friends and says: “I know you’re going to like them”. it just makes you think, “I have to go now.”
8. do your favorite part
Nobody walks out of the theater saying I loved that character arc. They come out saying: I loved the sword fight, or the bloated cow, or whatever. manuals emphasize the flow of a narrative, but it’s best to think of a movie as a set of sequences. that’s where the pleasure is. I’m working on an animated feature right now. traditionally, these films did not have any script. the teams built a series of scenarios and sequences around the story and characters. this is a great way of thinking. If you watch the first Godfather movie, it’s really an accumulation of anecdotes tied together by Michael’s moral decline. kes also works like this: the soccer game, the taming of the hawk, the official races, etc. try dividing your script into a series of chapters and giving them titles. If you want to see this doesn’t quite work, check out Mission: Impossible Movies. fantastic action sequences left in quagmires of soggy exposure.
9. throw it on your head
Characters tend to be blurry in scripts, partly because if you define things too much, you limit the number of actors you can cast. But just because you can’t describe their brows shouldn’t stop you from fully understanding what makes them tick. when sam peckinpah was rewriting scripts, he used to cross out all the character names and replace them with the names of people he knew, so he could find a solution. sometimes a flashy stage direction works wonders. The example that writers always cite is Guy de Maupassant’s line: “He was an old gentleman with red whiskers who always made sure to be the first through the door.”
10. learning to love rewrites
on sunset boulevard, the writer says, “maybe you saw my last movie. it was about okies in the dust bowl. of course, when it came out, it was all set on an underwater ship.” the writers get upset about the rewrite. I don’t get this. One of the glories of being a writer is that you have so many opportunities to get it right. ask norwegian footballer john arne riise how he would feel if he were allowed to say, “you know that last header, where i hit it into my own goal? that didn’t really work out for me. i’m going to take it out. i’ve decided that match would be better with a happy ending”. the trick is to stay on top of it and use the process to improve your script.
11. don’t wait for inspiration
I think people see inspiration as the engine that starts the process. in fact, the real moments of inspiration often come at the last minute, when you’ve sweated and worried for a couple of drafts. Suddenly you start to see new connections, new ways of doing things. that’s when you feel like you’re flying. the real joy of any screenplay is the detail. and much is lost in the process. put it back at the last minute.
12. celebrate your invisibility
ben hecht said it would be easier to become famous riding a tricycle than writing scripts. This is a good thing! when you go to a film festival, you will see directors and actors besieged by the press and having to bring up the same old stories over and over again, while you soak up the sun. remember: invisibility is a superpower.
13. read, read, read, read, read
read other scripts. read wordplayer.com, which is full of discussions, tips, and heartaches. But above all, read Karoo, a novel by the great screenwriter Steve Tesich, who made the world according to Garp. he tells you everything you wanted to know, and a lot you didn’t know.