Transforming caterpillars

August 24, 2010

I’ve added a couple new quotes to my writer quotations collection—one quotation for the story structure section, and one for the writer motivation section—and both from screenwriter Blake Snyder.  I hope you find them as motivating or thought provoking as I did.  The first:

“All stories are about transformation.  In every story a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.”

It’s hard to think of a major film in which the lead character or characters did not go through a major transformation.  And as Robert, a writer-director friend of mine, pointed out yesterday, this is probably one of the least realistic aspects of movies because, in real life, people rarely change.  Not real, root-structure changes. 

Which, I figure, is why character transformation makes for such good storytelling:

  • We all have this vision of what we want to be, even as we wallow in the quagmire of who we are.
  • We all know those whose persons who never change and we desperately wish they would.

So when a story can take us to a world where people really change, it inspires us—gives us hope. 

That’s my theory.  And Blake Snyder’s, apparently.  His words are a good reminder that writers must let their characters not only affect their world but be effected by it.

And, in other news…

Blake Snyder gave this advice to yet-unknown screenwriters, which he wrote on his blog the day before he died in July of 2009:

“Have fun! The most important thing to do is to love what you’re doing. That way, getting better at it isn’t a struggle, it’s a pleasure.” 

I love that.  What a wonderful reminder when one is getting bogged down in the business of trying to create a screenwriting career that you got into the business because, hopefully, you enjoyed the art of creating with words and language.  Yeah, sure, it’s hard work.  But so is mountain climbing or playing soccer.  If writing isn’t just as fun, why not flip burgers instead?  Much less stressful.


Balancing Form and Function in the Screenplay

April 23, 2010

I recently added a Rod Serling quote to my Writer Quotations collection—a quote passed on to me by my writer friend Jeff Schnaufer—that I find both inspiring and cautionary:

“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  (Rod Serling)

I purposely sandwiched this new addition in between the two following quotes on my On Narrative and Storytelling page because of their connected theme:

Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”  (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

In art, the obvious is a sin.”  (Edward Dmytryk)

Here’s the thing though…

How do you balance these harmonious, complementary words with this seemingly antithetical advice from an equally esteemed individual:

Don’t write so that you can be understood — write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”  (William Howard Taft, U.S. President)

Sure: since President Taft isn’t known for his creative writing, you could write it off (pardon the pun) as being less relevent advice.   But here is why I do not disregard it;  what writer has not experienced the frustration of finding that their carefully crafted message—which seemed sufficiently clear when they wrote it—confused the reader, or generated an unexpected and undesired response?  

Whether you’re writing a story or just a simple e-mail message, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

And you KNOW that misunderstanding can happen easily with creative writing in particular.  Words have different meanings.  Phrases have different meanings … potential subtext, for instance … that a writer must continually consider.   That’s part of the appeal of creative writing—that words have so much potential to carry meaning and symbolism and emotion, and it’s a ton of fun to play with it, to mold it.   But those very possibilities also invite misinterpretation. 

So, while “the obvious” in a screenplay may be a sin … 

The inobvious or misconstrued is a cardinal sin

… because a screenplay is only sorta’ kinda’ art, Mr. Dmytryk.  It is also a blueprint.  An instruction manual.  So, I try to write the screenplay to entertain, as you advise, Mr. Goldman (“Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend.  It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”), but a screenplay can never sell if it is just artful.  Writing the screenplay artfully is a great goal, but it must also be written so that it cannot be misunderstood.  It must also communicate, initially to production company execs and then, if sold, to production technicians and artisans. 

To write a screenplay effectively, I try to step outside myself and consider my audience’s frame of reference.  Then, with that perspective firmly in mind, I hope to write in a way that I will not be misunderstood, even as I work to make the reading of it a fun ride.

We’ll see.

Anyone else struggle with this balancing act between form and function in creative writing?  Let’s talk about it.


Writers Write

January 7, 2010

One quotation I just added to the Writer Motivation and Inspiration quotations page on my blog is this one by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

In reading the introduction to the book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, written by Karl Iglesias, I find one of those stupidly simple truths; you know—the kind of simple truth that smacks you upside the head and calls you “stupid!” for not already consciously knowing that truth and taking it to heart.

And that stupidly simple truth is…?

Simply this: that writers write.

Well, duh! … but … yeah!

Iglesias doesn’t use those exact words in the intro, but it’s a central theme of the passage.

The simple truth of this point—that writers write (and write and write and write)—is that most people who want to be great writers don’t do it nearly enough to ever hone their craft or prove their prowess.

The value of this simple (but not simplistic, mind you) truth is borne out in the background of several of the highly successful writers that Iglesias interviewed for this book. Many of them, such as Ron Bass, Steven DeSouza, Scott Rosenberg, and Michael Schiffer, talk about the volume of writing they did before they finally sold a piece or hit the big time.

Schiffer, for example, wrote 14 spec scripts (i.e., on speculation of ever selling it, as opposed to writing a script on assignment) before he was hired to write Colors. And Bass wrote four scripts during an 18-month period while he was doing daddy duty and practicing law, no less!

So much for any of the rest of us complaining that we don’t have time to write, ‘eh?

Write early and write often…

Here’s one more quote from the book’s intro that drove this “writers write” point home.

One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, and that habit has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological, and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating. (Niyi Osundare)

I’m not as successful a screenwriter as I would like to be. However, having sold one original screenplay and several co-written ones, I am propelled to write more, seeing these smaller successes as solid indicators of my potential to get to where I want to be as a screenwriter (i.e., making a reliable living from it). And having now completed reading the introduction of Iglesias’ book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, I know (duh) that I can boost my screenwriting success quotient by making it more of a habit and thus having a butt load of spec scripts ready to show.

Good book. So far.


An Influential Gift

December 25, 2009

Got a nice gift from a friend. I can tell, even from a cursory flip-through, this this gift, a book called The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, written by Karl Iglesias, is going to be influential to this blog, at least, but likely even influential to my career.

It will influence this blog because it’s a treasure trove of inspiring and thought-provoking quotations from well-known screenwriters or from others whose words are relevant to the career and efforts of writers. Since I have a large and growing collection of quotations for screenwriters broken down by topics (such as quotations on screenplay structure, scene structure, story characters and characterizationwriter motivation and inspiration, narrative and storytelling, and the lighter side of writing and being a writer), I hope to expand that collection as I read this books, adding selected quotes that provide me with direction and inspiration.

It will also influence my career because of the instructional value of the material, which Iglesias has grouped topically. Some of the topics are on the challenge of staying motivated, while others are about getting your script seen and sold, or about understanding the competitive landscape. Example topics:

  • Being Committed to a Career, Not Just One Screenplay
  • Being Comfortable with Solitude
  • Believing You’re Talented Enough
  • Becoming Possessed by the Story
  • Making Deadlines Your Motivator
  • Avoiding Distractions
  • Rehearsing Your Pitch until It’s Flawless
  • Not Being Paranoid about your Ideas Being Stolen

As you see: very practicable topics to a career-minded writer.

From the book, here’s a useful thought from Garrison Keillor for writers on the topic of avoiding distractions. “Close the door. Unplug the phone. Cheat, lie, disappoint your pals, if necessary, but get your work done.”


The Princess Bride Screenplay—A Good Read?

November 7, 2009

I just finished reading the screenplay for the movie The Princess Bride by William Goldman, and it was, in my opinion, a page turner. I was spellbound, unable to put it down.

You know what’s strange about that? It’s a screenplay, not a novel. And, by the nature of the beast, screenplays are…

Not designed to be spellbinding

By nature, a screenplay is effectively a blueprint—a kind of instruction manual for assembling a movie. By nature, it isn’t written for the enjoyment of the consumer. So it’s unnatural when reading a screenplay feels natural: pleasurable.

But isn’t a screenplay meant to tell a story too?

Yes, of course. But, in a screenplay, that conveyance of the story is stilted—structured in a way that it is inevitably non-narrative: not easily read with the familiar, graceful sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph flow of the standard narrative form, such as you would expect in a short story or novel. 

No, the screenplay is broken up visually into a series of mismatched text chunks of varying widths, alignment justifications, andimage capitalization rules, something like this:

So it’s a strain to the reader’s mind to consistently entertain and maintain the flow of the story as it hopscotches its way through the tangled form of the screenplay.

In spite of all this, reading this William Goldman screenplay—in fact, reading just about any of his screenplays—was as captivating as reading a good novel. Which should come as no surprise, given his own words on this:

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’” (from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

From that same book, in his essay about writing the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay, he points out that:

“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.” (William Goldman)

That’s a great thing for me to remember as I approach the transition from constructing the step outline to writing the screenplay, as I now am. While it’s important to follow the industry-standard constructs of the screenplay format—to not do so could be a distraction to the reader—doing so doesn’t prevent the writer from making the process of the reading more enjoyable for the executive than the guh-zillion others they’re reading this weekend.

Consider an example of this from The Princess Bride screenplay:

Finally INIGO goes back to cliff edge, starts to talk. It’s instant death if the MAN IN BLACK falls, but neither gives that possibility much credence. This is our two heroes meeting. They don’t know it yet; but that’s what it is.

The last two sentences do two things; first, they tell the screenplay reader (who is usually going to be a producer or director or a hired reader initially, but me in this case) something important about this scene that the viewer will either not know at all, or may only be subconsciously aware of. Second, these words allow Goldman to draw me into the tale, creating anticipation, while making sure that I understand the spinal significance of this moment, which may not be fully clear this early in the story.

He also uses a lot of humor in his screenplays for the benefit of no one but the reader. Consider this example from the same script:

…And what we are starting now is one of the two greatest swordfights in modern movies (the other one happens later on), and right from the beginning…

These words are never spoken by the characters. In fact, both of these example passages are from descriptions of actions within scenes: words the viewer will never witness or hear. They’re only written for the benefit of the director, the producer, and others involved in the making of the movie.

Goldman does that a lot, and with all his screenplays (of the nine I’ve read, anyway). Which makes the reading enjoyable, and even sort of makes the reader feel special … privileged. Like they’re in on something secret. Given his commercial success, I’d say this writing technique works; his movies are getting made because the executives with the power to greenlight them are enjoying the ride of reading his screenplays.

You can read more of Goldman’s wise words to the writer in my writer quotations collection.


Humorous Writer Quotations

October 28, 2009

These are some of my favorite quotations for fiction writers for those days when you could use a chuckle. And tell me please, which day isn’t one of those? Also, see more quotations for writers here.

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“This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.” (Eyeore)

“Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” (Jules Renard)

“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.” (Christopher Hampton)

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” (Howard Aiken)

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.”  (Josh Billings)

“I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” (Peter De Vries)

“Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” (Jules Renard)

“Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” (Samuel Johnson)


Quotes for Writers on Narrative and Storytelling

October 22, 2009

This category of quotations from my favorite writers quotes collection is about the bigger picture of storytelling– the theme, tone, motive, intent, pacing. A lot of good advice.

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“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story.”
(William Goldman, from the introduction in his book Five Screenplays with Essays)

“What is happening now is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not happen next.”
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“In art, the obvious is a sin.”
(Edward Dmytryk)

Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.” 
(Rod Serling)

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” (William Arthur Ward) Substitute the word “teacher” with “writer” and you have a powerful, relevent piece of advice for the screenwriter.

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (Stephen King)