Monday, January 31, 2011


Last post I talked about pre-writing.  Today I want to discuss a particular aspect of pre-writing:  research.

How much research do you need to do on a screenplay?  That depends on both the writer and the project.  Some writers like to do a lot of research.  It gives them ideas for the story, adds authenticity to their locations and helps them find their characters’ voices.  Other writers prefer to rely mostly on their imagination.  They don’t want to limit their creativity by focusing on the facts of reality.  Sometimes research can stifle inventive storytelling.

Some projects require a lot of research.  Something historical, for example, will likely require research into the time period.  A story that depends on showing the “behind the scenes” of an activity or industry probably demands some research if you aren’t already familiar with the subject.

Certainly The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard) benefited from the details of the banks and bank robbers and Black Swan (story by Andres Heinz, screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin) wouldn’t have been as successful if it didn’t reveal interesting obscure elements of the ballet world.

Accuracy is a different issue.  My rule of thumb on how much research is necessary for accuracy is: the more common the experience the more important it is to get it right.  If you’re writing about underwater welders, for example, you might want to do some research to get ideas but you probably don’t have to worry about all the details being correct.  Sure, underwater welders will spot the mistakes, but they are a very small part of your audience.

On the other hand, I once had a young student write a script that featured several scenes set in a Lamaze class.  In one I questioned whether certain activities were common in such classes.  The student said he didn’t know – he’d never been to one.  I pointed out that probably a third or more of his audience will have taken Lamaze, so he better do some research to get it right.

Another thing is how politically sensitive the topic is.  Nobody really cares if writer Randall Wallace took liberties with the history of William Wallace in Braveheart because it’s an epic adventure movie based on largely forgotten events in the distant past.  On the other hand, The Hurricane (screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon) got ripped apart for relatively minor inaccuracies – but that’s because it was advocating the release of a living, convicted felon.  If people are alive or revered by a political or religious group (Jesus, Ghandi, Mohammed, George Washington, JFK), you have to take particular care with your facts.

Sometimes you’ll simply be researching facts and information, but the best research is often experiential.  Maybe you go to the location of a scene.  Maybe you spend time with someone who does the job of your main character.  The police “ride along” is a staple experience of crime writers.  It’s much easier to write with authority about something you have some first hand experience with.

I once took a short trip on a train simply to get ideas for an action scene.  The details of things like how the emergency windows opened or how the platforms between cars fit together became key elements of the scene.  Just by studying the train I got ideas for twists and turns and clever escapes that I never would have come up with sitting at my desk.

This kind of research can be pretty fun sometimes.  I’ve visited the Antarctic Research Center in New Zealand to chat with scientists for a script.  In another script I had a character that was a zookeeper, so I interviewed some zookeepers and even got to go “backstage” at a rhino enclosure.  If you tell people you’re working on a screenplay you’ll be surprised how willing they are to give you access to these kinds of places.  Of course flying to New Zealand isn't cheap, so budget can limit the amount of in-person research you're able to do.

On the other hand, research can sometimes be too much fun.  It can be a source of procrastination.  As long as you’re doing research you can convince yourself you’re being productive without actually having to write.

It’s hard for me to give you an idea of when you’ve done too much research.  I usually do research concurrently with outlining.  When I have an outline that feels thorough, I begin my draft.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I stop researching.  But my research starts to be more focused – what do I need to know to write a particular scene?

So how much research you do is up to you – just make sure most of your audience can’t tell when you’re making things up!

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Someone recently asked me about how much pre-writing I do before I start writing actual first draft pages.  Pre-writing is stuff like brainstorming, outlining, character development and research.

The amount of pre-writing varies from writer to writer, of course, but also project to project.  And there’s a danger of doing too much – of using pre-writing as a way to convince yourself you’re accomplishing something when in fact you’re procrastinating.

I’m an outliner.  Most professional screenwriters I know outline extensively before writing – but not all.  However, those that don’t usually admit that their first drafts are a mess, often dozens if not hundreds of pages spent going in the wrong direction.  If you ask me, they’re outlining, too, they’re just doing it in screenplay format.  I’d guess my first drafts are more akin to their second drafts.

But I’m not criticizing their process.  Whatever works for them – and whatever works for you – is the right answer.  I can really only tell you what I do and why.

Let me start from the beginning.  Whenever I get an idea for a movie, I jot it down in a notebook.  Often these ideas are kind of half ideas.  There’s something there, but they aren’t really compelling or rich enough yet.  Somewhere down the line I’ll figure out the other half or I’ll put two of them together and it will feel like a movie.  Some of those concepts will worm their way into my mind and keep popping up unbidden.  Those are the ones I start developing.

The initial development process is pretty informal.  I’ll start to jot down notes by the idea in my notebook.  When I get to the point where I have to add a page, I create a file folder just for that idea.  Active ideas have a place in my file cabinet.  (Usually that’s half a dozen at a time, max.)

As the story starts to take shape I’ll begin to naturally organize it around the three act structure.  There are a few things I look for as this happens:  Who is the main character?  What’s their want and need?  What’s the main obstacle to their goal, or the main antagonist?  Do they succeed in the end?

Once I can answer all these questions satisfactorily I start formalizing the story.  I like to write an initial treatment of a page or two, just to let my imagination get the story out the way it sees it.  Then I start to break it down based on three act and mythology structure.  I might not have all the beats yet, but at least I’ll know what needs to be filled in.

There’s one more crucial question that comes up here: “Given this premise, what do I want to see in the movie?”  This is really a form of focused brainstorming.  You’ll probably only ever write one script about this particular subject matter so you want to make sure you get all the good stuff you can think of into it.

Then I basically start adding (and occasionally subtracting) until I have a 12-25 page step outline.  A step outline is a document that indicates every major scene with a paragraph or two or three describing the action.  It can include important bits of dialogue, too.  Once I’ve got that and it feels pretty solid, I’m ready to go to script.

But wait!  A lot of things happen between one page treatment and 20-ish page step outline.  Exactly what depends on the project.  Some projects require research (and that deserves a post in itself…maybe next time!)   All require character development, which I wrote about here.

A lot of writers use index cards to break out their stories.  They tack them to a bulletin board on the wall, one scene per card, or maybe additional cards with ideas for dialogue or events or character info.  As they get more ideas they jot them down on a card and tack it on the board.  Then they can reorder the cards to try out different approaches to the story.

Personally I don’t do this with most of my scripts but if I have something complex, or with a big ensemble, or that jumps around in time, I find this is a very useful technique.  Sometimes I’ll even use different colored index cards to indicate A, B and C plot; or to indicate which time period I’m in.  Then I can step back and get a really clear picture of how the different threads are balancing – if I go too long without addressing one, for example, I might want to move a scene forward or back.

The goal is to get to that step outline that feels pretty complete.  Once I have that, I’m confident I know what I’m trying to accomplish with every scene.  And as a result I don’t get writer’s block.  Not that I always stick religiously to the outline.  As you write, things change.  I’ll often end up rewriting my outline when I’m in the middle of the first draft.  And a lot of times I’ll revise the outline after the first draft to provide a roadmap for my rewrite.

It can be tough to know when that step outline is done.  Often you'll want to rush to craft those brilliant scenes, and you'll gloss over the fact you really haven't figured out what the character's feeling in the second half of act two.  Or the opposite happens:  you keep noodling with the outline because you're afraid to move to the next step.  You want to make sure you've figured out how you're going to dramatize every major beat of the story, but once you've done that, you do want to move on to your first draft.

I developed my process through trial and error over many scripts, and I’d say it’s still developing.  And really every script is different.  Sometimes the character pops into my head fully developed; sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out who they are.  Sometimes the structure is obvious and sometimes I spend a month trying to figure out what happens at the end of act two.  Research, particularly, varies a great deal.  Developing a contemporary romantic comedy based on personal experience is a lot different than developing a historical epic based on actual events.

But that variety is part of the fun of being a writer!


Now Write! Screenwriting – with a chapter by yours truly about character development – is now available!

Sunday, January 16, 2011


(Spoilers:  True Grit, The Town, The Maltese Falcon)

KISS – as in Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Many studio execs and producers are fond of saying that they are looking for scripts with simple plots and complex characters.  Are they right, or is this a symptom of the dumbing down process of Hollywood? 

Plot can be the enemy of involving storytelling.  If we’re too busy trying to figure out what’s going on, we don’t get caught up in the emotion of the journey.  I’ve seen many scripts where the story gets lost in tediously intricate plot mechanics.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, simple, straightforward plotting can make for sophisticated storytelling.  It allows you to explore character depth and delve more deeply into the nuance of theme.  Many great movies have straightforward plotting. 

Take the Cohen’s True Grit (screenplay by Joel & Ethan Cohen), now in theaters.  The plot is pretty basic:  hardheaded girl hires alcoholic tough guy to hunt down her father’s killer.  They go off into the wilds looking for the trail, sometimes cooperating with and sometimes in competition with a Texas Ranger.  They encounter bad guys, lose the trail, and finally catch up to the villain for the final showdown.

And that’s about as complicated as it gets from a plot standpoint.  The number of major characters is limited.  Subplots are kept to a minimum.  And there’s not a lot of extra exposition or backstory for the audience to process.  The story stays constantly focused on Mattie’s pursuit of her father’s killer.

And because of that the tension is always clear and strong.  There are several major twists to the plot, but all are related to this central tension.  For example, when Mattie and Rooster locate some of their quarry’s gang at a cabin, their plans at an ambush are undone by La Boeuf’s poorly timed arrival.  At the end of Act Two, both La Boeuf and Rooster give up the quest and then Mattie Ross is captured by her enemy.  Tense, but not difficult to follow.

What gives the movie depth are the characters.  They are rich and nuanced and full of surprises.  We have room for wonderful scenes of characters sparring to get what they want.

Same thing with another excellent film, The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard).  It’s the story of a robber who falls for a girl and wants to get out of the business…but is forced to do One Last Job.  Not only is it simple, but we’ve seen a hundred similar plots.  

Yet the characters feel fresh and real.  We care about them and therefore we care about the outcome of the story.  Moreover, we feel like we don't know what's going to happen.  We know what Hollywood would do, but these characters don't feel stock... maybe they'll do something unexpected.  Once again character complexity trumps plot simplicity.

“But wait,” some of you are probably saying, “what about a movie like Inception (written by Christopher Nolan)  – which you put on your list of top ten movies of 2010?  That has a complex plot, doesn’t it?”

Yes it does.  So do such great films as The Maltese Falcon (screenplay by John Huston) and The Sting (written by David S. Ward).  So it’s obviously not a requirement that you keep your plot simple.  Caper movies and mysteries, in fact, benefit from complicated twisty, turny plots.

But a complex plot requires that you give your audience a strong through-line.  Many people didn’t really follow what was going on in Inception.  I still can’t figure out exactly what all the bad guys were up to in The Maltese Falcon.  But both plots can be summed up with a simple sentence:

Inception:  A crook needs to plant an idea in another man’s dream before time runs out.

The Maltese Falcon:  A detective must find out who is behind his partner’s murder to stay out of jail.

A more technical way to look at it is that these kinds of films have strong Dramatic Questions.  “Can Cobb implant the idea in time?”  “Can Spade figure out who killed Archer?” 

In The Sting, the Dramatic Question is, “Can Johnny Hooker con the gangster who killed his friend?”  Even if we get lost in the plot, we understand that this is a revenge story between a small time con man and a deadly gangster.  This allows us to stay involved in the story even when we aren’t exactly sure what’s going on.

Most importantly, all these movies have strong central characters, and time is given to develop what’s at stake for them.  We may lose track of the plot details, but if the main character stays front and center and we grasp the Dramatic Question, we’ll keep watching to see how it all comes out.

So whether your plot is simple or complex, make sure you give the audience a clear Dramatic Question to pull them through the movie.  And make sure your characters are complex and dimensional.  When it comes to character, don’t KISS.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Best Written Films of 2010

In my opinion, this turned out to be a pretty good year for movies.  I can easily fill my top-10 list with films I enjoyed thoroughly.  Oddly, there’s not a lot of comedy, at least in the live action movies.

I have to give my usual disclaimers:  This is the list of what I think are the best written movies, which is not the same as the movies I liked the best (though this year they line up pretty closely).  Also, though I watch a lot of movies, I haven’t seen everything.  So obviously if I didn’t see something it’s not on this list.  And remember, this is my list… if you don’t like it you can make your own!

10.  RED (screenplay by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber) – Very enjoyable, tightly plotted, a few good laughs, and reasonably good character work.  Balances a variety of elements perfectly.  Writing good popcorn movies is not as easy as many people think, as evidenced by how few of them were in competition for this list.  So kudos to the Hoebers for a fine piece of entertainment.

9.  True Grit (screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) – This one might have been a little higher if my list were favorite movies of the year.  The performances and cinematography elevate the script immensely.  But it is an above average adaptation, well paced, with great dialogue and characterizations.

8.  How to Train Your Dragon (screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders) – I felt like I should have enjoyed it a little more than I did, but I blame some of that on a shaky 3D projection at the theater I was in.  It’s got a strong heart and a fun story, with a goodly dose of character driven humor.  It’s really the many clever little touches and the way the writing sets up exciting visuals that makes it stand above most of the other fine animated candidates this year.

7.  The Kids Are All Right (written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) – Amazing depth of character and great dialogue with a couple of surprising plot twists.  The hook of the premise gives it a strong narrative thrust that is sometimes lacking in these kinds of films.  And the family dynamic, though not “mainstream,” was thoroughly relatable.  This and Please Give were the movies that felt most like real life to me.  Not that movies have to feel like real life, but it’s impressive when they do.

6.  Toy Story 3 (story by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, screenplay by Michael Arndt) – I didn’t think it was quite up to the level of the first two but those are pretty high standards!  Hilariously funny, emotionally moving, clever, exciting…it’s everything we’ve come to expect from Pixar that is so uncommon in other movies these days.  And to do all that on the third flick in the franchise is especially impressive.

5.  The King’s Speech (screenplay by David Seidler) – What a delightful, absolutely original story.  Though I thought the therapist’s character was a tad cliché, every other character was so fresh and dimensional that it’s a minor quibble.  It’s also an authentic look into a fascinating world we don’t get to see often, which I love in movies.  Plus, it’s just a real crowd pleaser.

4.  The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) – I have to admit, I wasn’t that enthused to see what sounded like a Rocky knock off.  But man, the interrelations of the family were so well drawn and so dramatic that it absolutely grabbed me.  And even if you can guess the ending, the path to get there is continually surprising.

3.  The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard) – All genre movies should be this good.  The story isn’t all that original, but the characters are unique and complex, and the tension is intense.  Add in the richly detailed, authentic portrayal of the robberies and the investigation, combined with the powerful sense of place, and you get one of the best scripts of the year.

2.  Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) – Yes, the characters other than Cobb were a little thin.  But there’s more going on here thematically than practically any other movie this year, and the plot is delightfully twisty and inventive.  And what movie generated more intense discussions afterward?  Bonus points for degree of difficulty – a tough story to pull off coherently.

1.  The Social Network (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) – Who cares if it’s 100% accurate?  This movie works on every level.  Great characters, fascinating plot, amazing dialogue, tense and moving scenes.  Nobody can make wonky banter crackle like Sorkin.  And though the acting, directing and especially the score are all top notch, this really does feel like A Film By Aaron Sorkin.

It’s a lot easier to pick movies I like than to rank them.  When making these lists I am constantly reordering movies and switching other ones in and out.  Ask me next week and my rankings may be different.  So I wanted to mention the movies that almost made this list:  Get Low, Please Give, and Megamind.  All well written and very enjoyable.

There were also several close candidates for worst written movie of 2010.  Dishonorable Mention goes to The Wolfman, Dinner for Schmucks and Sorcerers’ Apprentice.  But the winner (loser?) by a nose was the truly awful Robin Hood.

Some statistics that are not really useful to anyone:  On five of my ten best written films one writer or a single writing team got credit.  On six, the director had a hand in the screenplay.  So there's that.