Notes On The Rehearsal of a Play

   My new play Sparkling Object opens on November 3, 2010 at The Canal Park Playhouse, a new theater in Tribeca in New York City.

     Rehearsals have just begun and I've been doing rewrites and making changes in the script. There's nothing like hearing your lines not only read aloud, but "acted" by a first-rate cast. From the first read-through of the play I started hearing words and lines differently. Fortunately, most of what I'd written worked very well. But then there were the occasional lines, beats, moments and parts of scenes that didn't work.

     I knew it the instant I heard them. After the first read-through the actors had questions. Good questions. Why does he say this? What do you mean by that? What does she want? Guess what? All the questions came in places where I knew something wasn't right. So I fixed them.

     As rehearsal progressed there were more questions, not only from the cast but from the director. Important questions. Sometimes about the choice of a word or a pause or line that didn't feel right. Sometimes an actor or the director had a suggestion that made great sense or a question that drove me straight into a rewrite to do some clarifying.

     With each rehearsal the script is getting better and tighter. And the changes I'm making are becoming fewer. I felt confident that the play worked on the first day of rehearsal. I feel even more confident now and that's because I've had the good fortune to have wonderful actors and a savvy director who inspire me to work harder to make the play--and our production--better.

     I'll be taking a break from blogging for the duration of rehearsal and throughout the production. I expect to resume posting in January.

The Short, Sweet Destiny Of A Scene

Whether it’s in my own work or in the scripts of others that I read, there are often characters and scenes that have no reason for being there.

As writers, we may think we need this stuff while we’re doing the first draft or the first scribblings of a project, but there must come a time when we have to realize that something needs to be cut. I’m not referring to the “kill your babies” maxim attributed to William Faulkner. Those are moments, usually lines, that we fall in love with and with great reluctance, must excise.

Instead, I mean the scene or character that literally has no dramatic purpose. In layman’s turns: no reason for being in the script. If something has no dramatic purpose it’s got to go. Why? It either takes the reader/audience out of the story or it brings the forward movement of a story to a crushing halt.

A monologue in a play is acceptable. Plays are about words. They are talkie. Screenplays can’t be. There are exceptions, of course. Quentin Tarantino and a handful of other screenwriters/filmmakers can get away with it.  But most can’t. You can’t. Maybe, near the end of your script, after, hopefully, the reader/audience is emotionally involved with your protagonist, maybe we’ll tolerate a two-page speech.

The plus side of the scenes and characters we eventually have to cut is that in the beginning we do need them because their initial dramatic purpose is to exist so you can get your main character from one place to another.  Or it feels right at the time to have your protagonist talk to someone to give information.  Or one day you’re not feeling it and you start writing a scene just to be writing and it suddenly resonates with you so you keep it.  

If the writing of that scene gets you back on track it has fulfilled it’s destiny. And you can move on.

What Good Is A Great Idea If You Can't Finish It?

Ordinary, workmanlike ideas are a dime a dozen. Great ideas aren’t. When I say great I mean commercial, high concept, extremely sellable ideas. If you haven’t figured it out yet, most of the time Hollywood buys the “idea.”  It could be a book, play, comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, blog, twitter, a true story and, oh, yeah, a screenplay.
            If you’re lucky enough to come up with a great idea you move to the front of the line. But if you can’t complete it you’re screwed. You’re more screwed than the screenwriter with an OK idea who has completed a script. At least he or she has something to put on the market.  And sometimes that OK idea is so well-executed that the writing stands out and the characters are so interesting that the OK idea is overlooked because reading the script has been such an enjoyable ride.
            Think Juno a few years ago. Ordinary idea. Really, old, done to death idea: teenage girl gets pregnant, wants the right couple to adopt it: will she find the right couple? Ho-hum. But the execution, as we all know, was spot on. We hadn’t seen dialogue like that in a while or such an appealing character. Hell, all the characters were appealing in this otherwise ordinary story.
            So having the OK idea isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you can rise to the occasion with superior execution.
            But if you’re one of those people with the “big” idea that would make even the most jaded Hollywood type do an Irish jig and you can’t finish it, that’s just bad form.
            I can’t tell you the number of great ideas I’ve heard from students, clients, friends and colleagues. I mean, really cool things. The kind of idea you’re immediately jealous of because you didn’t think of it.  The kind of idea that makes you want to suggest a collaboration.
            And I can’t tell you the number of great ideas I’ve heard that never get finished. Or maybe there’s a first draft, but the author can’t get the initiative to do the next couple of drafts to get it into perfect shape.
            I’ve been saying for years that completion is everything. It’s the only thing that matters if you want to have a career.
            If you’re one of those lucky people with a great idea, but you’re not completing the screenplay, you need to get in touch with why that’s happening. Life intrudes, as they say, so if life is piling on and you can’t get your head on straight, OK. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to help lift the fog. Or maybe you need help in the form of a collaborator. You need a second set of eyes to help you discover what was right before your eyes. Maybe you need a script consultant or a screenwriting class or a writers support group.
            It’s bad enough to have an OK idea and not be able to complete it. But when you have that killer premise that makes everyone who you tell it to smile, and you can’t get it done, it’s not quite tragic, but it’s pretty damn sad because the risk you take is that someone else will come up with the same idea and beat you to the punch.

Making Hay While The Sun Shines

           It’s been a busy and productive Summer. The only place I haven’t been productive is right here. Only 3 posts in 3 months. Until I started blogging in January I never understood why some of the blogs I follow had lengthy periods without posts. Common sense dictates that bloggers who don’t post have either run out of ideas for a column or maybe just maybe they were, uh, busy?Duh?
            That’s been the case with me. Work on 3 different projects has taken up lots of my time since May. 
Years ago I read an interview with Stephen King.  If you’re a fan of Mr. King you know he’s a prolific writer. I probably read this 25 years ago. He said that when someone is paying him to write he works on that during the day, giving it his full attention. When he’s working on something else on spec or for fun simultaneously, he works on that at night. His point was that if it’s someone else’s nickel you give that priority.
            I’m not now nor have I ever been as prolific as Stephen King. The idea of spending 5 or 6 hours in the daytime working on a paying job, then working that same evening on a non-paying job (something I’m doing for fun) is alien to me.
            If I get 3 or 4 pages on a given day it’s cause for celebration.
            Because of the projects I’ve been working on this summer, along with two classes that I taught, I’ve had to view the time I spend on this blog like what Stephin King refers to his nighttime fun work. Symbolically, the projects I’ve been working on are “somebody else’s nickel.”
            The thing I want to convey is that for most writers, we can go weeks, months and years without anything happening. Nobody likes your script or you can’t finish it or you can’t come up with a good idea or you’re having your annual self-doubt week. But when something, or more than one thing, happens and it means that something you’ve written finally has forward movement, that’s when, as the farmers of yore used to say we should: make hay while the sun shines.
            This Summer has been a positive hay-making time for me.  Some good things are happening and I’ll be discussing them soon.
            I’m also going to free up time to get back to making posts on a regularly basis.
            As my friend Lew Hunter likes to say: “Write on!”

Character Motivation Is A Bitch!

   As Shakespeare said, “strong reasons make strong actions.” The reason this is so profound is because if you don’t know why a character, especially your protagonist, is doing something or wants something, you will have a rambling screenplay.
     Your plot will be unclear and your dialogue, no matter how clever, will mean little once your audience starts wondering why your main character is saying these things.
     An old rule of writing: every line of dialogue should reveal character, move the story forward or get a laugh. If it doesn’t do any of those things you need to rethink it.
     And it’s not just one thing in the script. You need to justify every line in every scene. If your protagonist goes into a dry cleaning store she better have a reason. If it’s just for her to pick up eleven dresses so we can see that she has excellent taste in clothes, that’s not enough of a reason for the scene (unless her taste in fashion is key to the character and plot). We can learn that by looking into her closet.
     If she has an exchange of dialogue with the proprietor that’s about the difficult stains he was able to remove—-not enough—unless it’s a thriller and as he’s telling her how he got the stains out it triggers a memory that will move the plot forward.
     If you have her go into that dry cleaners it must be for a reason germane to the plot or her persona.
     I have a friend whose mother is super grandma. He has four kids under twelve. When he was growing up he didn’t have a grandmother because his mother’s mom died when she was a child. So his mom’s children (my friend and his two sisters) grew up without a grandmother.
     When my friend started to have children, along with his two sisters, his mother very quickly became the greatest grandmother in the world.
     I’ve known this woman all my life. I asked her about being super grandma and she said that her kids had to grow up without a grandmother and she didn’t want that to happen to her grandchildren.
     How’s that for a strong reason resulting in a strong action?
     Whenever I have trouble pinpointing why a character is doing something, I think of her. And it helps me concentrate and giving a character proper motivation.

Don’t Underestimate The Value of Distancing Yourself From Your Work

     It’s been over a month since my last post, but I have a good reason. I had a great vacation during which I did no writing. I also got a new book deal and I spent time before the vacation finishing it up. Since I got back I’ve been involved in another project that’s kept me not only away from Screenwriters Rehab, but the project I’d been working on since February.
     Without going into details (it’s not good to talk about your work when you’re writing it), it’s something I’ve gone back and forth on for over a year, but it was going to be the thing I wanted to finish by the end of Summer. I think I still may be able to, primarily because the distance I’ve had from it has invigorated me. I feel refreshed and excited to get back into it.
     And I do mean excited. I re-read what I have so far to familiarize myself with the characters and plot and I’ve already gotten fresh ideas and a stronger perspective. One of the story points I came up with is major. I don’t believe I ever would’ve found it if I hadn’t been away from the script these last couple of months.
     This is a simple example of the importance of distance, whether you have 30 pages or a first draft.
     Most screenwriters, myself included, loathe putting the script away for a few weeks, let alone a few months, largely because we want to get it done and “out there” to get a deal or an agent or manager.
     I can speak from past experience: distance works. Usually it was forced on me. I’d finished something. It got read. The feedback wasn’t great or it was good, but with a proviso strong enough to make me take another pass. And that pass made the script better.
     As difficult as it is for me to be patient, I’ve learned that being patient with a script is crucial. And to me, patience means giving yourself some time away from your baby.

Without Dramatic Conflict Your Characters Are Boring

     Most of the screenplays I read lack dramatic conflict.  Characters just talk and say empty words. Nothing’s happening. Often, the reason for this is because we don’t push ourselves to find drama in the lives of our characters.
     So maybe we look into our own lives for some dramatic conflict to inspire us. You argue with your spouse or significant other. You quarrel with your parents or siblings or friends. You squabble with an obnoxious neighbor, rude sales clerk or whoever.
     But sometimes we don’t have enough drama in our lives. Things may be going smoothly and pleasantly. There’s no crisis or chaos. While this is good for our peace of mind, it’s bad for our sense of the dramatic. There’s nothing like something happening to shake things up. We’re thrown off guard, we lose our balance, we’re knocked out of our comfort zone and lose our cool.
     But if nothing’s going on we get lazy.
     This is when we must truly use our imaginations to try and stir up some drama. What I do is try to picture celebrities or people connected to celebrities in their real lives. Not as we’ve come to know them publicly, but how they really are in their private lives.
     What do Michelle and Barack Obama talk about when the kids are tucked in and they’re alone? Does she ask him to rub her feet? Do they argue about what to watch on TV? What is it like to be Sharon Stone’s personal assistant? Does Paul McCartney ever wonder if he or Ringo will be the last surviving Beatle? Do Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have their own secret language?
     What were the first words exchanged between Sarah Palin and her daughter when she learned of her pregnancy? What went on in the mind of the coroner who did the autopsy on Brittany Murphy? Is Kate Gosselin petrified that she’ll never find a man because she has 8 kids? What was the mind set of the guy who tried to blackmail David Letterman?
    What is it like to have been married to Rush Limbaugh? Wife #1 was when he was young and struggling. Wife #2 came along as his career took off. Wife #3 hit the jackpot. What would it be like if those three women got together and dished about life with Rush? I heard recently that he’s getting married again this summer. What goes through the mind of the next Mrs. Limbaugh as she processes the fact that she’ll be #4? Does she secretly wonder if she'll be his last wife?
    Think of this as a mind exercise. Pick a handful of people you like (or don’t like) and imagine what goes on in their private lives. It just might open up some new doors for you when it comes to writing more powerful scenes.

If You Want To Be A Knight, You Have To Slay A Dragon

     It’s The Middle Ages. You’re ambitious. You’re not content to be a vassal or farmer or blacksmith or whatever your father and grandfather before you did for a living.
     You want to be a knight. Knights were the rock stars of the time. They had the cool uniforms, the best horses and probably got the hottest chicks.
     Generally there were two ways that a boy could become a knight. The first was to be born into it. If a boy was the son of a knight or royalty he could be assured the opportunity of becoming a knight. At the age of 8 he would work for another knight as a page and have to learn all sorts of skills, then if he were any good in a few years he would become a squire. Then after more training and learning and grunt work at the age of 20 he would become a knight.
     That was the easy way.
     For the guy without family connections it was tougher. He had to prove himself through bravery and prowess on the battlefield.
     In order for me to make the point of this post work, let’s say that the fastest track to knighthood was by slaying a dragon. If you did that, you could eliminate all the years of training and lots of battles.
     Kings and queens loved knights who killed dragons. (I don’t know that for sure, but if I was a king in Sixteenth century France I would want a guy who killed a dragon to be on my payroll).
     OK. Here’s the shot: in today’s competitive market if you want to sell a screenplay you’ll have a better shot if your script is highly commercial. Doesn’t matter what the genre is, but if your Logline rocks and your Synopsis makes an agent, manger or producer drool because it's so cool and if your screenplay lives up to their expectations and they see it as a star driven vehicle (especially for a star they have access to) and if the script reads like a dream and if it has franchise potential and if they happen to know that a hotshot director is looking for something like what you wrote, well…you have slain the dragon.
     If you’re the kind of screenwriter who writes non-commercial, thoughtful, “small” stories about real people in difficult situations and if you don’t think about making the big score don’t panic. It means you didn’t want to be a knight anyway.
     But if you’re like that Sixteenth century guy without connections who wants to be a knight, then you have to slay a dragon by writing a killer script.
     Note: This post was inspired by a conversation with filmmaker Bill Kalmenson (

My Schadenfreude Is Becoming A Problem

       Schadenfreude is a cute word of German origin that means “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”
       My LA-based friend The Angry Screenwriter (T.A.S.) emails me with the news of deals that have fallen apart. Not his deals, but the deals of other screenwriters or TV writers he knows.
       He relishes in their misfortune, primarily because he has had so many deals fall through that he feels it’s his right to gloat. It’s easy to be vindictive like this if you’ve been screwed a few times. I understand. I’ve found myself enjoying the news that someone’s deal fell through. My Catholic upbringing then makes me feel guilty, then I get to thinking about the bad karma and I try to rescind my bad thought.
       The Angry Screenwriter asked to expand on this theme:
       Many years ago I heard the following maxim: “success isn’t enough, others must fail.” I also heard it this way: “success isn’t enough, your friends must fail.” When I was younger I couldn’t relate to this. But the longer I spent in Hollywood getting deals, almost getting deals, having deals blow up for reasons having nothing to do with the script I started to become hardened.
       I found myself getting jealous when somebody else got a huge payday or a movie made while my projects were wallowing in development hell or being messed with by a producer.
       Even though I’ve had movies made and earned some serious coin, I feel that I’ve been wounded enough to feel justified in not being sad or sorry for someone who has a deal fall through.
       I wish I wasn’t like this. I wish I could be more Christian or understanding or sympathetic. Somewhere along the way I heard of the word schadenfreude and I realized that I was experiencing it. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I could be supportive and encouraging to people who had something fall through.
       But I can’t. At least not at first. My immediate reaction is “good. Now you know what it feels like.” But as I get older and more mellow I find myself trying to be understanding and not be happy.
       So if I can give you some unsolicited advice: don’t let your schadenfreude get in the way of being a kinder human being.

Twitter For Screenwriters

  • OMG. Get your story started fast
  • Have the Instigating Event (or Inciting Incident if you prefer) happen ASAP—within Pages 1-4
  • Make sure The Major Dramatic Question is clear by the end of Act I
  • Have plenty of complications in Act 2. Don’t make things too easy for your protagonist
  • Get your subplot rolling early in Act 2
  • Remember: almost every film ever made has a romantic subplot. Yours should too
  • Always have a middle of Act 2 event that cranks up the action. Approximately Page 55
  • Have a big moment at the end of Act 2 that propels the story into Act 3. Think of it as introducing new information
  • Have another event in the middle of Act 3 that further cranks up the action
  • Aim for a satisfying ending. Doesn’t have to be happy, but it should be satisfying
  • After your first draft, get feedback from 3 trusted friends. Do a rewrite, then get feedback from your most trusted friend. Do a polish
  • IMO. After the polish don’t look at it for a few weeks. Longer if possible. The distance will give you clarity. Then do a final pass
  • You are done
  • Focus on trying to find an agent, manager or producer to read your script
  • Start your next screenplay and repeat the process
  • And in the words of Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never give up!"
  • B4N

How To Confront The Unforgiving Nature 0f Third Acts

           My early training was as a playwright. Although most plays over the last forty years are two acts, historically plays were three acts. One of the first rules I learned was that if there were problems in Act 3 it meant that the real problem was in Act I.
            Since the 3 Act Structure is what most screenwriters use to write their scripts, the rule I learned as a playwright is dead on.
            If you’ve been writing a while and have started, but not finished, a number of scripts, chances are you walked away from them because you couldn’t make your third act work. If there’s a way to make them work it has to do with how you end your second act.
            Act 2 must end with a bang. A surprise. New information. Most films don’t have a big End of Act 2 moment. The ones that do rock! The best one ever is in The Crying Game. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen The Crying Game I don’t want to spoil it for you, so rent it.
            By building your second act to a big moment or reveal or twist or new information, you propel your audience into Act 3 with momentum. Say you’re writing a romantic comedy and the story is basic will boy get girl? You’re moving along and the boy is pursuing the girl and then you get to the end of Act 2 and we find out that she’s married. If we didn’t see that coming, you’ve pulled it off and made us say: “What’s going to happen now?”
            It’s important to know that you don’t necessarily need to have a humongous event happen at the end of Act 2 (like in The Crying Game). But you need to have something. Something that makes your audience (and remember, your first audience are the people reading the script) smile or nod their heads or think “Interesting.”
            Getting to that moment means doing your preliminary work. An outline. Not all that long and not for anyone but yourself. Basically you write down (no dialogue) whatever will happen in Act I, then whatever will happen in Act 2 and point out the new information that will propel you into Act 3.
What Act 3 is all about is how your main character handles whatever that new information presented to him was. What action must he take? And if he takes it, what is the risk? Or if he doesn’t take it, what are the consequences?
Act 3 can be beaten and controlled and made to work for you. But before you get there, do an outline and know where you're going.

When You're A Results Oriented Person In The Delayed Gratification World of Hollywood

            Screenwriting is not a profession for anyone who’s used to being paid after putting in a day’s work. Punch in/punch out. Do your 40 hours. Get a paycheck at the end of the week.
            If you went to college, you put in your 4 years and you got a degree. Put in 2 or 3 more years for grad school and you get a degree. Put in however long it takes to write your dissertation and you have a Ph.D.
            You put in the effort and you get a reward. Makes sense. 
            What doesn’t make sense is when you put in the effort and there’s no reward. Writing a spec screenplay--whether you spend 5 weeks, 8 months or 2 years--doesn’t guarantee a reward.
            For some, that’s very upsetting, especially if you’re a results oriented person. Most of us are results oriented. Who wants to do anything without some remuneration? Even a college student who gets a job as an unpaid intern will have a payback down the road: experience, maybe a promotion to a paying job upon graduation, possibly a good reference. So there is a payback.
            But if you take up screenwriting you must accept the fact that your results oriented work ethic doesn’t mean crap. You have entered a new world of delayed gratification.  Put in the time—months, years, lots of sweat and energy—with the idea that there will be a payoff later on.
            There might be. There might not. No matter how good or commercial your first screenplay is it may never earn you a penny or get you an agent. Its only purpose may be to have helped you get your feet wet as a screenwriter. Same with your second, third, fourth and fifth screenplay.
            Lots of hard work, but no deals, agents or managers. Maybe access to some producers, which is something.
            But with each script, you’re getting better. Most of us, myself included, after we’ve written a few screenplays can look objectively at our first or second and realize that they were at best, workmanlike. Maybe even pretty mediocre.
            Delayed gratification should be your mantra.
            “I will do the work and put in the time because I believe in myself and my talent. I understand that this is a marathon and it’s not fair and that some people sell the first freakin’ thing they write. I can no longer follow my results oriented attitude and must accept the fact that I will hopefully taste the honey at some point. I know that the more I write the better I’ll get and that has to be consolation enough until my payday comes.”
            If you can’t abide by this way of thinking, screenwriting will be a troubling, frustrating experience.

Has Your Wheelhouse Worn Out Its Welcome?

           I’ve heard the word “wheelhouse” a lot lately during some conversations, e-mail and Facebook exchanges with a number of screenwriters and filmmakers.  The first time I heard it, a few months ago, I wondered what it meant for a few seconds, then rather than ask the person who uttered it, I ignored it.  He was kind of pretentious and often used big words.
            But during the last two weeks, when it came up so often, I figured it was time to find out what it meant. Google led me to several definitions.
In baseball this is the part of an individual's swinging range in which as a hitter they can make the best contact with the ball. If a pitch is right in your wheelhouse it is right where you want it, in the spot where you have the best chance of hitting it well. Also, an area  of expertise, a particular skill or anything that can be acted on with confident success.
Comfort Zone seems like another way of describing it. 
As screenwriters, we tend to have our genre comfort zones. Comedy writers write comedies, action writers write action, etc.
            If you haven’t had success getting an agent or interest from producers with the genre in which you’re writing, maybe it’s time to explore something else. David Mamet has done it and I think we can all agree that he’s had an illustrious career as  screenwriter.  From dramas such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, Homicide to action/thrillers films Heist, The Untouchables,, Spartan and Hannibal to lighthearted fare such as  About Last Night and State and Main.
            If David Mamet can expand his wheelhouse maybe you should too.
            If you’ve been writing commercial, mainstream Hollywood fare, maybe it’s time to take a crack at that small, personal Independent Filmie thing. Or if you’ve been doing the Independent Filmie thing, swallow your pride and write something commercial. If you get a deal and make some money and the script gets made you’ll have some buzz and you can go back to the Indie stuff.
            Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the screenplay for Inkheart and did a rewrite on Spider-Man 4, as well as writing the script for the film version of his play Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman.
            Oliver Stone and James Cameron wrote cheesy thrillers early on. Before Eric Roth wrote The Insider, Munich and The Good Shepherd he wrote Memories of Me starring Billy Crystal and Henry Winkler.
            Bottom line: if whatever you’re writing isn’t working, consider giving another genre a whirl.
            It just might turn out to be your new wheelhouse!

My Ambivalence Is Becoming A Problem

            I have a screenwriter friend in Los Angeles who has for many years been my eyes and ears in the movie industry.  He’s been out there since he was 23. He’s 46 now.  He’s had numerous deals, several things made with and without his name on the project. He has done rewrites and spent time on a few TV shows.
He’s made money. Not a living, but money—reminiscent of playwright Robert Anderson’s maxim about writing plays: You can make a killing, but not a living.
            My friend has not made a killing.
            But he keeps at it.
            He’s married to a woman who makes decent money so he doesn’t have a big financial monkey on his back and he lives comfortably. But he wants to earn more money.
            He’s also angry. His therapist told him that he’s the angriest person she’s ever encountered. My friend wore that as a badge of honor. For years he’s been referring to himself as The Angry Screenwriter. A.S. for short.
            Besides being angry he’s cynical.
            He’s also very funny. And witty.  I mean Oscar Wilde witty.
            He felt he was too lazy to start his own blog on the movie business. (He’s not lazy. He’s one of the most prolific writers I know) After thinking about it he felt that because of his addictive personality he’s concerned that once he started blogging it would take up all of his time. (It probably would. He is an addictive personality).
            Instead he asked me if he could tell me what’s on his mind and use Screenwriters Rehab as a way to vent.
            I happily accepted.
            Here’s the first thing that came out of his mouth:
My ambivalence is becoming a problem. I care deeply about an idea, then I hate it. I want to leave this town, then when I actually start to think about doing so, I have abandonment issues. I want to kill my agent, then I want to send  her candy because she got me a meeting. I want to make my work edgier, then when I do I feel that I’m becoming a different writer. I want to be more aggressive about networking and hustling new contacts, then I figure why bother? I don’t know how to be charming. I don’t know how to play the game. Then I convince myself that I’m very charming and I’m good at working the room. This is what I mean about my ambivalence. I’m curious if anyone reading your blog has the same problem.”
And there you have it. Him, actually. The Angry Screenwriter.
Welcome to his world!

When You And Your Screenplay Have Irreconcilable Differences

I think the biggest problem every screenwriter faces is that we get lost in our own point of view. In the early stages of the scriptwriting process, getting lost in our scripts is good. It’s what launches us. But that kind of single-mindedness can only take us so far. At some point we have to pull back and be more objective and self-critical.
The further we allow ourselves to go into our own little wormhole the easier it is to become imprisoned there. Once that happens it’s easy to be overwhelmed by some of the problems listed in my last post.
It’s a matter of getting back your focus. It’s kind of like falling back in love with your material. Think of you and your script as having had a huge lovers quarrel. You're not speaking. You've separated, maybe even divorced. You might even have started working on another script which is tantamount to cheating. But you want to come back and your screenplay is ready to welcome you so the two of you can try again. (Gimme a break. I'm reaching for an analogy here. You know what I'm saying).
A good way to accomplish this reconciliation is by doing things you’ve heard before. Maybe you’ve tried them. Maybe not. Maybe it’s time.
·      Re-type your entire screenplay from page one. It’ll help you get back into the feel of where you left off
·      Set a writing time you won’t veer from
·      Give yourself a daily page count - even if it’s only one page
·      Edit any scene that looks too talkie or has too many stage directions
·      If a scene is tormenting you, maybe it shouldn’t be there. Every scene must have a dramatic purpose. If it doesn’t, cut it
·      Try to write something every day. Even if it’s only a long email to someone
·      Give yourself an imaginary deadline to complete your script
·      Watch movies. Sometimes losing yourself in a film, good or bad, will get your juices flowing again
Without sounding too New Age, the object is to get into a mindset that will guide you into that wonderful zone where you’re totally into the material.
You’re in love again!

9 Reasons Why You Can't Finish Your Freaking Script

Based on an unscientific poll of screenwriters I know, the following seem to be the biggest roadblocks:
1) You’re spreading yourself too thin with your full-time job, social life, family responsibilities and/or other interests that prevent you from finding enough quality writing time.
2) You’re working on too many scripts at once. Halfway done with this one, a third of the way with that, stuck with no third Act for another.
3) You’re so infatuated (or obsessed) with your idea that it’s turning into a creepy little Pygmalion scene or your psychotic Frankenstein monster. You just can’t let it go. You’re constantly tweaking and revising the same scenes over and over again.
4)You’re spending too much time thinking about the deal you’re convinced you’ll get or making notes about which stars to get the script to.
5)You get mad at the script, as if it’s a recalcitrant child who won’t listen.
6)You somehow expect the screenplay to fix itself.
7)You’re waiting for your Muse to do her part and you haven’t realized that she’s like that girl/guy who dumped you and left town without a forwarding address.
8)You have negative people around you who are discouraging.
9)You’re just lazy and more of a slacker than you thought.
Whichever point(s) above applies to you, there’s only way to deal with your inability to see a first draft through to the end: confront it.
It’s almost like going to therapy. You acknowledge your problem, figure out why you’re letting yourself be victimized by it, then take the necessary steps to get out from under it. Owning up to what you’re doing wrong (or not doing) is the first step.
Some problems are easier to deal with than others. If your brother or a parent or even a significant other ridicules or minimizes you for pursuing a screenwriting career, you must turn a deaf ear to the negativity. Let them carry on, smile and keep writing. It’s your dream, not theirs.
If you come to the conclusion that your biggest problem is laziness, i.e., you talk about writing a screenplay more often than you actually do it, you must give yourself a wake up call. Stop goofing off. Stop wasting time. Instead of going out drinking with your friends, shopping at the mall and doing all those things you do to avoid sitting at your computer and grinding out five more pages (even if they’re so-so) find a mirror, stare long and hard into it and remind yourself that writing screenplays isn’t a day at the beach.
It’s hard. Very hard. And it takes discipline, concentration and tenacity to finish one. In my next post, some solutions to getting around what's blocking you.

“I don't like the way this script of ours has turned out. It's turning into a seedy little drama.” (Network)

The ultimate goal of every screenwriter is to sell a script and get it made. However, the primary goal of every screenwriter should be to finish the first draft of a screenplay.
Without a first draft you’ll be stuck in a place worse than Development Hell. You’re left without food or water in a dark, sad, bleak place that I call Undeveloped Hell. And what’s even more galling is that you’re the Gatekeeper.
Never forget: a bad first draft is preferable to a brilliant unfinished 49 pages that have been gnawing away at you for two years.
Completion of the first draft is everything. Even if it’s barely 85 pages with a meandering second act, no real plot twists in Act Three and an ending that’s not only unsatisfying, but so wrong it belongs in a different screenplay. Even if it’s way too long (and you’ve known it’s too long ever since you hit Page 118 and you haven’t gotten to the end of Act Two.)
But too short or too long, at least you got to the Fade Out and you’ve typed in The End. Only then can the real work of revision, rethinking and fine-tuning begin. But getting to that completed first draft is the hardest part for most of us. If you can get a handle on why you’re not moving forward to completion, it might help you break through the miasma.
In my next post I’ll get into what I’ve found to be the biggest roadblocks that bring screenwriters down.

That's So Funny I Forgot To Laugh

Finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
            When we go to a Farrelly Brothers movie we expect a certain kind of product. Gross out humor in largely unrealistic, high concept plots with a handful of genuinely inspired lines and moments. Woody Allen films, especially his early and mid-career efforts offered a witty, neurotic take on the human condition, especially romance. His fans knew that they were going to see a unique, intellectual kind of creativity and wit. If Judd Apatow’s name is on a film be it as writer, producer or director we know it’ll be something high concept with an abundance of sex jokes, but with an undertone of sweetness. So finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
            The thing is, depending upon the kind of comedy you’re writing, you may not need to be as funny as these guys. Romantic comedies need laughs, but not necessarily six per page. Take two Reese Witherspoon films: Sweet Home Alabama wasn’t a laugh a minute. Neither was Legally Blonde, although it was funnier and had a higher concept. But both had compelling stories.
            Guy comedies (or buddy comedies) need more laughs than a romantic comedy. Think I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers, The Pineapple Express or Role Models.
            Let’s look at television again. I used to hear people refer to Sex and The City as a sitcom. It wasn’t. It was a drama with occasional laughs and humorous situations. No one watched Sex and The City for the humor (and nobody went to the film version expecting to laugh out loud for two hours), as opposed to Seinfeld, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and of the current season Modern Famly. Same with Entourage. Is it a sitcom? No. Parts of every episode are hilarious, but it’s really a drama with occasional humor that comes from character.
            Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe: information crucial to the plot is given.
            Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there should be on in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming.
            So if you want to write a big, broad comedy (The Hangover, Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, Liar, Liar) your script better be funny as hell from first page to last.
            If you want to write a romantic comedy or something serio/comic (serious topic with laughs) or a comedy/drama (lighthearted story with a serious or sentimental turn) you don’t necessarily have to have 3-6 laughs per page. Once again, here is where having a solid story will supercede lots of laughs.
            Can someone be taught to write comedy? Yes. Just like someone can be taught how to cook. If you take cooking classes, read a bunch of cookbooks, watch The Food Network and spend enough time in the kitchen trying out recipes, you’ll be able to prepare a meal that you won’t be ashamed of.
            Learning to write comedy is pretty much the same. Take a class on sitcom writing, improv and/or stand up. Read books on comedy writing (Writing The Romantic Comedy is very good, as is What Are You Laughing At: How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More). You can study comedies (you’ll learn more from the bad ones, than the good).
            If you don’t want to collaborate and if your heart is set on writing comedies, just keep staring at the scene that needs punching up until a funny line pops into your head. Then do it again and again and again. Just don’t try to analyze what’s funny or figure out where it comes from. 

“Total absence of humor renders life impossible.” Colette

            A strong story without a lot of laughs is preferable to a weak story with five jokes per page.
            Many comedies falter because of a flimsy or dimwitted plot. Ultimately, no matter how many laughs a script has, if the story isn’t absorbing enough for somebody to sink her teeth into, it won’t get read to the final Fade Out. As we’re laughing at things your characters are saying and doing, we must care about them and root for them to get whatever it is they want (no matter how goofy). If that want isn’t there we’re not going along for that ride no matter how amusing it might be.
            There’s an old maxim in baseball: “It’d rather be lucky than talented.” When it comes to a comedy screenplay, I’d rather have a solid story than plenty of laughs. Laughs can be put in. Maybe not by you, but if it’s a great story your chance of getting an agent or a deal has just gotten closer to the goal line. If you have a 103-page script with tons of laughs, but a mediocre story, well, it’s much more difficult to punch up a plot.
            Which is why The Third Rule of Writing Funny might be something to consider.
            Two heads can be better than one.
            Let’s say you’re a serious, reliable screenwriter with a clear understanding of not only the 3-Act Structure, but 5-Act and 7-Act structures, as well. You know that characters should be three-dimensional, have internal and external conflicts and be properly motivated.
            You’ve immersed yourself in Christopher Vogler so you know the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey inside and out. You’ve read all the screenwriting books (especially mine, The Screenwriter Within), gone to the important seminars, studied, analyzed and deconstructed films, read the key biographies and autobiographies of screenwriters and subscribed to the best screenwriting magazines.
            There’s only one problem: you are incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue. Unfortunately, all the ideas you come up with are way too serious and downbeat (like that bio-pic on Damien the Leper you’ve been mulling over the three years).
            If you are this guy or woman, you need to get together with a certain kind of person. The off the wall, rapid fire, life of the party, grown up class clown who has the ability to write jokes, great set pieces and funny lines and is hilarious 24/7, but if his or her life depended on it, couldn’t come up with a story or write a script.
            It’s the perfect convergence of talent.
            Check the credits on sitcoms. You’ll find at least one and often two or three writing teams on every show. Same with screenplays. It’s fair to assume that most of these teams got together because they each brought their strength to the table.
            Finding your writing soul-mate isn’t easy. It’s like finding someone to marry. You have to look around, see how you get on and hope that it works. If it does work you’ll both be in a much better place than going it alone.

You Want To Write Comedies, But You're Not Funny. Oy! Let's Talk

            As the saying goes, “Funny is money.” The person who can write funny has a definite edge over the person who finds it difficult.
            So if you’re humor challenged when it comes dialogue, what can you do about it? In my experience, writing funny, original dialogue comes naturally, just as spontaneously adlibbing funny, clever remarks does. You can either do it or you can’t.
            I wish I could say “Take a comedy writing class” or “Read a book on how to write funny stuff” or offer you some inspirational words of wisdom on finding your inner standup comic.
What I can offer you is something Tim Allen said in a TV Guide interview upon being asked about his sense of humor, specifically his ability to be funny. “Being funny is a gift to me. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s magic and its marvelous and I’m terrified it will all go away.”
Where does it come from? Who knows? Where does superior natural athletic prowess come from? Why is one 6’8” kid who plays forward on his high school team better than fifty other 6’8” forwards on other high school teams? For every Lebron James there are 10,000 kids who aren’t quite good enough.
The First Rule of Writing Funny
            Just because you can say funny things doesn’t mean you can write funny things.
            Writing funny is different than saying or doing funny tings. Lots of men and women who crack up their friends and co-workers are incapable of writing funny dialogue. Adolescent boys who can’t get attention from girls by excelling at sports, their looks or intelligence resort to goofball antics either physical or verbal. But that only goes so far and lasts so long. The kid whose talent is shoving a slice of pizza up his nose will be trumped by the boy who has figured out that girls get bored quickly with silliness and prefer someone who can amuse them with wit.
            This funny boy will likely blossom into a funny man and will find that his gift will be a big plus in his social life. And it will come in especially handy if he sets his sights on being a screenwriter. In real life most people can’t tell a joke or a story, especially a funny one. They lose their focus, deliver the punch line too soon, go off on a tangent, leave out on important detail or sink into a meandering blur. They’ve lost their audience. As the author of a screenplay that’s a comedy, your audience is much tougher and unforgiving: agents, producers, development people, creative executives and managers.
            You have to keep that agent laughing from the first page—especially the first page—because if she’s enjoying herself by the time she gets to the bottom she’ll definitely turn to Page 2. And if you keep the laughs coming for the next ten and the rest of the first Act you can feel pretty confidence she’ll finish the entire script—provided you have a compelling story.
            Find out The Second Rule of Writing Funny in the next post.

“Bad fortune enlightens and good fortune deceives.”*

            The following is a true story:
            A screenwriter friend had finished a screenplay. A comedy. I read it and thought it to be quite good, funny and commercial. He had a handful of people he could ask for help in getting representation. The first person he called came through for him in spades. He couldn't help him find an agent, but he had access to a major Hollywood player.
            This individual, himself a producer, had become friends with the sister and brother-in-law of a big time Hollywood director.  Hearing the director’s name, the screenwriters hopes soar. Those hopes soar even higher when he is told by the producer to drop off his screenplay to the office of the director's brother-in-law.
            Residing near the brother-in-law’s office, the screenwriter decides to drop off the script in person. He gets there and a receptionist greets him. He holds up the envelope containing his screenplay and asks if she can get it to so-and-so. But she misinterprets what he says, asks for his name, picks up the phone, calls the brother-in-law and says there’s someone here to see him. The screenwriter doesn’t say he just wanted to leave the script.
            A secretary comes out, and before the screenwriter can say a word, says “Mr. So and So will be with you in a few minutes. Come with me.”
            The screenwriter follows her into a small meeting room where he is told to wait.
            After a few minutes the brother-in-law arrives. Again, the screenwriter is prepared to simply formally introduce himself, hand the guy the screenplay, thank him for getting it to his famous brother-in-law and then leave.
            But the brother-in-law wants to talk. So they talk. For more than an hour. About movies and stars and the big time director. The screenwriter feels comfortable with the and the conversation goes so well that the subject of getting together for lunch in the future is brought up.
            So far, so good.
            Now for the bad news. The brother-in-law proceeds to explain that he will not be giving the screenplay to the big time director to read, but instead to the big time director's sister
            Yes. Sister.
            This stuns the screenwriter. The brother-in-law proceeds to explain that the sister reads scripts for her big time director brother—-scripts that come to her via people she meets in her business, which (now this is important) is not show business. The sister is in a field that is far removed from Hollywood and literally has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to read and judge the merits of a screenplay.
            The horrible truth is all beginning to fall into place for the screenwriter. If the big time director’s sister likes the screenplay she will pass it on to her brother. But what the screenwriter start to wonder is whether or not the big time director will actually give any credence to what his sister’s opinion of a screenplay is.
            Why should he? The big time director is so big time that he has his own production company receiving scripts from the best agents and managers representing the best screenwriters…so why would he give a damn what his sister who’s not even in show business thinks about a script? He wonders, like, "duh!"
            Despite his misgivings, the screenwriter gives his screenplay to the brother-in-law, they shake hands and part in a friendly “We’ll get together soon” manner with the brother in law saying “My wife will get back to you after she reads the screenplay.”
            The screenwriter forces a smile and leaves.
            The instant he walks out of the office his heart sinks. His gut instinct is that nothing will come of this. He goes home and Googles the big time director’s sister and, as he suspected, finds not one mention of her film credits or anything to do with show business. He does, however, find several hits concerning the business in which she is in.
            Despite his misgivings, he decides to put a happy face on the experience. He started to imagine that the big time director's sister will love the script and pass it on to her brother and that he will like it and a phone call will be made and a meeting and a six figure deal and the house in Malibu and...
            Five months passed. There was no contact. The screenwriter's happy face scenario turned into a sad face, but not a defeated face because screenwriters cannot allow themselves to be defeated. That would mean giving up. And that particular screenwriter doesn’t have it in his genetic make-up to give up. He’s a big believer in living and learning, being cautiously optimistic and having a healthy cynicism about these things.
            But most importantly, this screenwriter has had a valuable experience from which he can draw upon the next time he has the chance to meet someone who might help further his career. As the philosopher Boethius* says, “Bad fortune enlightens and good fortune deceives.”
            This screenwriter’s emotions will be a mix of cautious optimism and healthy cynicism, but he’ll go in with eyes wide open, a little wiser and a little tougher.