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What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 No comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!

Pitch, Treatment or Script?

August 13th, 2010 No comments

 

At first the question sounds like a philosophical enigma. And, in a way, it is.

If you have a GREAT MOVIE IDEA, and want to share it with the world, how should you present it? As a ‘pitch,’ which usually involves a verbal presentation to a studio ‘creative executive,’ (meaning someone who got to the job fair a half-hour ahead of you… Although, to be sincere, some creative executives know what they are talking about – I met one. Once. To his credit, he’d actually seen some of the same movies I had.) In any case, your ‘pitch’ involves describing your GREAT IDEA using theatrics, rhetorical devices and basic drama. At the end, you’ll usually hear “We’ll get back to you,” but anything short of “Get out of my office!” should be taken as a good sign. Rumor has it that the most successful, shortest pitch ever was Tom Mankiewiecz’s “Dum de Dum Dum” reciting to get the 1987 “Dragnet” greenlit. Too bad… a little longer and the creative exec might’ve decided more wisely…

A treatment for a film usually covers 10 or so double-spaced typed pages. It is ordinarily a combination of characters, plot description and key dialogue, and imparts the general idea of the film’s structure and plot points with the pacing and tone included. I’ve read 10-page treatments that essentially spelled out the entire film (Think “John Carpenter’s ‘Ghosts of Mars,'”) or treatments which merely touched on the subject at hand. One of the more memorable treatments I read dealt with a novel-in-progress about organized crime involved during the rebuilding and reunification of Germany (along the lines of “Eastern Promises”). By the time the script actually appeared (a couple of years after the novel’s publication), the story was dated and diluted. It was disappointing, because the novel-in-progress (and its associated treatment) had a ‘Sopranos’-like appeal – which only faded as time intruded.

And the last choice is the ‘gold standard’: a script. They’re the hardest to complete (well), but they are what studio executives will ask for most (and usually first – “Do you have a finished script? – Or a writing sample?”) A finished – and bulletproof! – script is really the best way to go with anyone who is serious about producing (or investing in) your project. Your writing needs to be ready-for-production in a manner that won’t allow anyone to question its practicalities, characters, plot loopholes or other logic gaps so that you can lead with your very best. If your ideas can be called into question by a single query, does it make any difference what form it’s in?

Pitch, Treatment or Script? Do it the way you want to – but do it! And – this is important – if you’re submitting it for consideration, your work had bettter be the best it can. Otherwise the decision of ‘Pitch, Treatment or Script?’ won’t be important. At that point, the only important answer you’ll need is “Which way’s the door?”