or, how having a catastrophic illness might save my life.
A few years ago, Final Draft, Inc. launched a campaign titled Why I Write. Established screenwriters – Simon Kinberg, Susannah Grant, Aaron Sorkin, and others, were invited to write a brief statement about what drove them to do the thing that they do – write for the screen. The responses, which appeared as rotating banners on the company website, ran the gamut from the humorous (“Because I wanted a job where I could wear pajamas”), to the poignant (“To keep my father’s voice alive”). One of my favorite campaigns was one that I worked on; a member of Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films Workshop was selected. He was a teenaged screenwriter who was developmentally disabled., and he wrote a beautiful testimonial to his craft. When Lynn brought the final proof out, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the office, Why I Write was one of the most successful marketing campaigns that I had seen. It was honest. It was real. Note – Final Draft ran the campaign for many years on their website; unfortunately, they no longer seem to, and I am unable to find any of the quotes archived. A great tragedy – hey, Marc, why don’t you dust it off, and bring it out to share with the new generation of screenwriters? The campaign was a much-needed response to the emergence of The Great Spec Sale. Sometime during the early 90s, someone decided that story and character were of little importance to a screenplay’s merit – what was really important was the concept. Was the script “high-concept”? If you answered “yes”, then it went out on Monday, and the bidding wars began, By Thursday, an unknown writer was inking a deal for low to mid sixes, and Friday’s Variety was singing the story of another “overnight success” in Hollywood. And, oh, how the scripts poured in, a veritable tsunami of potty jokes and lo-brow humor. And the circus-like event formally known as the screenplay development and sale went one step further. One day, executives decided that one didn’t even need a script to sell for a king’s ransom – the concept alone could “be” the sale. If the concept was high enough, one didn’t even need to write the script; the writer would develop the story and present it through a pitch. Writers would show up at CAA in a gorilla suit on Monday, and sling some bananas around. By Thursday would appear a six-figure deal…. and the script had not even been written. That’s not to say that all high-concept is bad or evil; scripts like DIE HARD, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, TRUE LIES, and HOME ALONE, among others, sprang forth from the high-concept glut, films that enjoyed both commercial and artistic success. High-concept was here to stay. But for every gem out there, there were hundreds of nuggets of fool’s gold hitting the market. Suddenly, everyone in Hollywood was a screenwriter. The problem was, the majority of these scribes had never written a script; they simply saw a screenplay as a shortcut to success and wealth, Character? That was for those little “indie” films. Story? Oh, don’t get so analytical, wasn’t it funny when he farted in the court? Countless wretched scripts were written, and some of them even made it to the screen. The screenplay had become the poor man’s genie’s bottle. Substance mattered little – how much can you get for it? That was what was important. Eventually, audiences wised up, and stopped shelling out hard-earned dollars for crap. The spec market collapsed, and things like story and character became the focus of discussions again. Today, to achieve a sale, you really do need to write a good, solid script. And yet, the impact of those times still lingers, like the bad taste in your mouth after a night of binging on cheap cigars and even cheaper booze.
In truth, concept has been and always will be king. Movie-making is a business, and a very expensive one at that. Investors want to see a return, and a handsome one at that. And yet, at its heart, a film is a piece of art, which brings us back full circle to question what is it that drives you to engage in such a speculative craft? Why do you write?
There’s a great deal of polarization amongst screenwriters in regard to that question. On the left, you have writers who want to entertain – make ’em laugh, They’re not as obsessed with character, or hero’s journey – they simply want to be funny. Or try to be. They usually fail. On the right, you have the socially conscious snobs. These are the writers who are self-described rebels who insist that every script should address a socially important issue – global-warming, Roe v Wade, gun-control… if there is a topic out there, they’ll take it on. And, they believe the script should not only address a cause, it should actively instruct the audience about the cause, the script must “change the world” with its greatness. (Note – the scripts and writers I’m discussing are narrative form, not documentarians.) I believe that their intentions are sincere, that they truly want to accomplish some good, but their belief system is so myopic and rigid that the scripts produced are as bland as a fiber bar. It’s “good for you” writing, but the result is generally a huge-turnoff, for the road to hell is, as we have been told, paved with good intentions.
And then you have the middle-ground, a horrible description, for I believe these writers are anything but/ They’re top-notch, for they want to have a script that can become a commercially successful film that entertains audiences – and is meaningful as well. The audience might learn something – but not by force feeding, They may laugh until their sides hurt, but only because the comedy is relatable and well-executed. These writers are my heroes, for they are the true master-craftsmen. They write from the heart, and they write for you. Their scripts are gems, large and small, and they come in all genres, shapes and sizes.
Storytelling did not involve as a form of artistic masturbation; crack open the heart of any committed screenwriter, and you will find within the ancestor of us all – the tribal shaman, gathering his or her clan around the fire, weaving stories to ward off the dangers of the night.
So, before you begin work on that new project, before you hit your outline, or type Fade In, do yourself and the script a favor. Ask your self why you write it.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
There are thousands of screenwriting courses, that promise to offer you the opportunity to “write a role that will have every A-List actor out there fighting for your script!” Some of these promises go further and claim that that your script will take the great leap – the one that will generate a bidding war, Submit on Thursday, sale on Monday. You know the drill.
I don’t know what to say about those courses. I don’t know if writing can be taught. Appreciation, history… these are things that can be taught. The rest? Well… I’m not too certain. One can learn structure, writing dynamic dialog, creating a character’s complex backstory. These elements can be taught – and taught well, but the rest? I don’t know. I rarely purchase a lottery ticket, therefore, I won’t be standing in front of the camera as I cradle an oversized check. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t encourage you to buy into the aforementioned dream – an A-lister will value your words above those of everyone else’s. Being a filmmaker is hard. Your skin needs to be fused with Kevlar, in order for you to survive.
And so, I won’t teach you how to write. I will, however, ask you to look at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Look at her. Now, look at her smile.
Mona Lisa is a richly layered work of art. By layered, I do not mean with paint, chalk, or other tangible tools, but the layers of the subject – Mona Lisa. What and/or whom is Mona Lisa? Where did her smile begin and where does it end – and, from what? Joy? Passion? Penance? Pain?
In short, what is the truth within her smile? What’s the story? Is her smile one of revelation… or is it a smile of sorrow? Is she Our Lady of the Smile of Perpetuity?
Why is she smiling? What happened to her, for this expression of elegance
and possibly deceit to grow?
This question may seem trite, and yet, I assure you, that it is anything but. Look at her. Her glossy hair, her patrician features, her elegant fabrics, and her enigmatic smile. Look at her in wonder: What is the source of Mona Lisa’s smile?
Now, ask yourself the same question…. but of your own script : When does your character have his/her own Mona Lisa smile?
Do that, and you will have a character that could not be declined. Get out there. Get out of your house, your coffee shop, your caffeine-laden sanctuary. Get out of your head, and into the world… and permit yourself the glorious action of finding out what caused Ms. Lisa to smile.
Then, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
Originally posted on Princess Scribe's Blog:
In the past, I’ve marked the date with a journal entry about Blake, his influence on me, and the memories surrounding his unexpected passing.
This year, however, I choose a different path.
BJ Markel, Blake’s partner in Save the Cat! and closest friend, has invited several of us who knew Blake, to contribute to a series of columns about our conversations with the Master Cat. I have a few of these in mind, as I am certain, do others.
And so, while I peruse my treasure trove of memories, and prepare to pen my own remembrances, I encourage you to visit the site, and read the first of many of these entries. Blake’s childhood friend, Tracey Jackson, shares her memories of her last conversation with Blake.
Now, go write.
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I’ll continue to post at Princess Scribe; I have some nifty musings on character prepped to launch later this week; however, my life has taken a sudden turn. Many of you know about the accident that led to the discovery of a Giant Cell Tumor on my spine.
This discovery has placed me on a new path. My life has irrevocably changed. And so, I decided to journal this adventure, and invite you all to join me on The Accidental Journey.
Today, I’m participating in the “My Writing Process” Blog Tour. It’s a sort of chain mail amongst scribes; the tour rolled out in January, and will conclude by next week.
I was invited to play by Henry Sheppard, aka the Adelaide Screenwriter. Henry’s tour commenced last week; he wrote with great eloquence about the publication of his novel Play the Devil , as well as writing for the screen, large and small.
Long story short, the blog tour asks its participants four questions about their writing process. I’ll turn my tour over to another writer, who will conclude this adventure in story, publishing her blog on June 15.
1. What are you working on? I’m working on what is certainly the most challenging piece I have come up against. It’s a dark fantasy piece, set in the world of child abduction and sex-trafficking, a bit of a down-the-rabbit-hole journey for one girl. It’s a mentally, spiritually, and emotionally taxing piece to commit to. I plan to go into production with it in early winter or spring.
2. How does your work differ from others? Hmmm. That’s a loaded question. I could be cagey and say that everyone’s voice is uniquely their own, but… I’m influenced by classic literature, and reference mythology in my stories. Shakespeare influences me, as do Joyce, Homer and Austen. So there’s a certain sensibility that my characters carry around with them, regardless of their station in life. And, as I’ve noted before, the majority of my stories share the common thread of redemption.
3. How does your writing process work? Process is so interesting to me, because it combines moments of great inspiration with what is seemingly banal organizational work. Stories usually come to me in dreams – I’ll dream of a character. Tom, my hero of EDEN, appeared in a dream I had while working on a completely different story. I was standing in a barren field. It was just after dawn; a heavy fog blanketed the land around me. A movement caught my eye; it was a man. He carried a rifle against his right shoulder, and a string of pheasants dangled from his right arm… and as he moved closer to me, I realized that his left arm ended just below the shoulder. And so, it began… The same for They Live Among Us; Caim appeared in a dream.
So, I start with a spark from my muse, and then begin the hard work of beating out the story, getting the structure sound. I use my Save the Cat! training for this; it’s a great system that allows me to lay the story out. I put it up on my board, and work it there for months before I type FADE IN. I find it is much easier to discard a note card than it is to cut out five pages of work. By the time I am ready to go to script, I have anywhere from 60 to 100+ story “beats.”
For my new project, I’m trying something different. I’m using the same process… but I’m beating out the story in images as opposed to words. I was inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s journals for PAN’S LABYRINTH, and as this new project is a dark fairytale, I decided to play with this technique.
4. Why do you write what you do? Honestly, I have no idea. My work reflects the muse that I was dealt.
I’ve always been a storyteller; I published my first short story when I was 11, and made my first film at 14. My father was a huge fan of the cinema; I remember being taken to see Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS when I was 9. It blew me away; I never knew that film could be “that.”
When I was 13, I was injured in a horseback riding accident, and had to spend quite a bit of time in bed. I had blown through my entire Nancy Drew collection, and was bored out of my skull. In what I believe was an act of desperation, my mother dropped The Complete Works of William Shakespeare on my bed, along with Homer’s Odyssey. I was hooked.
A couple of years later, I stumbled across Stephen King’s The Stand. I firmly believe that King is one of the greatest writers in modern literature, regardless of genre. He just happens to write about things that go bump in the night.
As stated earlier, I find that redemption tends to pop up as a theme in a lot of my work; I also play with the theme of duality. The two faces of Juno that reside within us all, and also, the perception of truth, and reality. What is real… and what isn’t… and what may be.
Join the final stop on the blog tour on June 15 with playwright, screenwriter, novelist, poet, and self-described “redhead born in a blond-headed body” Sandra de Helen at her blog site Red Crested Chatter.
Life in Los Angeles can drive one mad. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the confusion… add to that the insanity of the entertainment business, and you have a mix that is guaranteed to bring the most stoic of people to their knees.
One of my coping mechanisms is to get out – not out of L.A., but into it. I find hidden treasures everywhere. And so, the plan today was to explore: an architectural jaunt to Hollyhock House, then a Metro trip to the Gamble House.
As the train pulled into the 7th Street Station, it jerked and slowed, then stopped. There was a great commotion outside. People were yelling and pointing. The lights went off in the train; the airflow stopped. Moments later, L.A. County Sheriffs swarmed through, ordering people off the train. We exited, confused. A man pointed. I turned and saw one of the Sheriffs on his knees. He held a flashlight, and was peering under our car. A man was under there. He had jumped in front of our train.
Within a few minutes, the place was evacuated as emergency personnel descended to carry out what could only be described as a grisly mission. We were with the people who had tried to prevent the man from jumping; apparently, he threatened to do so in a joking manner, making several false starts before he most determinedly flung himself in front of the tons of steel barreling towards him. No one knew him; some said he was 40, others claimed he was 20. The truth will come out by the end of the day, once the local media prioritizes the importance of their newsfeed… but what is known is that he is dead.
I was in shock; not 15 minutes before, I had been talking about a story that I am working on, strangers coming in contact with one another, a tale of urban life. One character – a young man – had traveled to the train station. He had gone there to commit suicide – by jumping in front of a train.
We were led upstairs and pushed out onto the street, only to land in the middle of a Hollywood blockbuster filming a great action and adventure sequence. Helicopters were everywhere – police, media, and the ones that were filming. It was chaos. The trip to the Gamble House was off, as train service was suspended, and the desire to go there had diminished. I spent the next few hours wandering around the Theatre District and Pershing Square, as my mind returned again and again to the event. Eventually, the Metro declared the situation resolved, and the trains resumed their schedules, with a few minor delays.
The return to 7th Street. It was so very quiet. There were neither police nor emergency responders; the platform was all but empty. As I waited for the train, something caught my eye. It took a few moments to register, but suddenly, I realized that I was standing in the precise spot where, just a few hours ago, that desperate soul had taken his life. That man’s entire existence – all he was, all he would ever be – was reduced to three sad objects – a coroner’s glove, a pair of tennis shoes, and a pool of dried blood.
I keep wondering about that man. Who was he? He was somebody’s son, that is for certain, and at one time or another, he had been somebody’s friend, somebody’s lover. What happened to him, what despair so consumed him that he felt this action was the only one he could take? And… where were his angels? Where were those voices, those soft whispers, telling him to stop, reassuring him, telling him to breathe, that everything would be alright? What had left him so bereft and alone? Why had his angels, that grace within humans that stops them from committing the unthinkable, abandoned him? And, so, I think about Caim, and Father Buer, of Lillith, Lucien, and Beliala, and of their falls from grace. I think of the guardian angels in my life, and realize how grateful I am for them… and I wish fervently that, for just one second, they had left me, to give comfort to another.