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Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.