|Alex Epstein is a screenwriter for television and movies, and author of the book Crafty Screenwriting. He co-created the comic drama television series Naked Josh, which is now running on the Oxygen Network (U.S.A.) and on Showcase (in Canada); the pilot episode was just nominated for a Canadian Screenwriting Award. He was most recently Head Writer for a new science fiction TV series, Charlie Jade, which premiered on April 16, 2005, on Space. Previously, he was the executive story editor for the science fiction series Galidor (on Fox Kids and YTV). He has freelanced on various other shows. A feature film he co-wrote, Warriors, starred Gary Busey.
Before devoting himself to writing, Epstein was a development executive at various production companies in Los Angeles, working with such directors as Lord Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), and helped develop many independent pictures.
- Does Spelling Count?
- Basic Format
- Screenplay Length
- Basic Style
- No Camera Direction
- Only Write What You Can See/Hear
- Cut To’s and William Goldman
- Character Names
- Voice Overs
- Read Your Script Out Loud
- Never Make Your Characters Stupider Than You Are
- On the Nose Dialogue
- No Unnecessary Bad Language
- Using Songs and Music in your Script
- Random Thoughts on Fleshing Out Characters
- Never write from hunger!
- Horror and Thriller Don’t's
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Don’t's
- Some thoughts on Period Pieces
- A Brief Rant About Readers
- Words to Live By
- Screenwriting is a Craft, not Art
- Query first
- The First Reel Contract
- Pitch Your Movie To Yourself
- Cast Your Movie
- Development Exec Myths
- The Rubber Ducky
- How We Know Character
- Pat the Dog Scene
- Secret Lives of Characters
- It’s Episodic
- Love Thy Enemy
- External Antagonist, Intimate Opponent and Tragic (or Comic) Flaw
- Literary Names
- How to Adapt a Book (Hitchcock Method)
- How to Write a Script Based on a True Story
- Editing Your Scenes
- Foreign Language Dialogue
Screenwriting is a Craft, not Art
Screenwriting isn’t an art, it’s a craft. Artists create to please themselves, or so everybody tells us. Craftsmen create according to other people’s specifications, stated or unstated, but aren’t happy unless they please themselves, too. I think of screenwriting as fine cabinetry. A cabinet must hold clothes. The drawers have to go in and out smoothly. The two side of the locks must line up evenly. The knobs shouldn’t fall off. But a cabinet should also be a thing of beauty. The proportions should be right, the curves satisfying. A fine cabinet can be spare or ornate, saying different things about the room it’s in. Similarly, a movie has to entertain, but it can also carry a theme, a subtext, a unique shape or form; it can experiment; it can create beauty. If you make your movie only to please yourself, good luck getting financing; but if you make it only to please others, why not get an honest job? Or as Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who am I? If am not for others, what am I?”
Why do people go to the movies, anyway? Terentius Publius said the purpose of oratory was ut docere, ut delectate, ut movere, to teach, to delight, to move. Although the filmmaker may make his film as propaganda, hidden or otherwise, people rarely go to the movies to be moved to do something. They go to be delighted, and to be taught.
Films delight when they take you somewhere you haven’t been before and introduce you to people you either haven’t met before, or would like to be with, or would like to be. They also delight when they put you vicariously in a situation where the stakes are much higher than they seem to be in your own life.
Films teach when they explain the inner workings of other people – by making their characters transparent, they give you insight into the real people in your life – maybe even give you insight into yourself.
A film that delights or teaches, or preferably both, is moving in the other sense: it pulls your heartstrings. It reminds you of what’s important. It raises the stakes in your own life, or rather, helps you remember what the stakes really are. Everybody dies, and almost everyone’s afraid of death, but most people live as if they’re just trying to get through life. The heightened reality of a film brings out the hero, the lover, the magician, the child in your heart.
If your screenplay isn’t delightful and doesn’t give insight, it’s a waste of trees. In theory everybody knows that, but too many screenplays, pale mimics of movies we’ve already seen, don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been, introduce you to people you’ve already seen too many times, and don’t give you any insight. There’s also evil screenplays. Bad screenplays just mimic movies the writer has seen, he or she figuring, they made it into a movie once, maybe they’ll pay me to make it into a movie again. Evil screenplays, like the evil movies they become, lie about human nature, present false insights, paint the world as a meaner and nastier place than it is, and thereby teach people to be meaner and nastier to each other.
As a more positive rule of thumb, never write a screenplay unless you’re aching to see the movie yourself. You can fool yourself, but you won’t fool the audience.
Okay, here’s an unorthodox idea. You know how you spend six weeks or six months writing a screenplay, and then people don’t want to read it?
Well, say what you will about discovering the screenplay as you write it, but you’ll get a lot more mileage if you query first. Now far be it from me to suggest that you actually pretend you have a screenplay and send a lot of queries out, or call a few agents and/or producers and ask if they want to read it. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that, if they like it and you “forget” to send the screenplay because you haven’t actually written it already, they will soon enough have forgotten that you were going to send it, and you can tell them six weeks later that you have a “new draft.” That would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?
But you should pitch your project to a few trusted friends. If you can’t get them interested in reading your script before you write it, don’t write it. Some questions to ask are: “would you pay good money to go see this movie? Would you take a date to this movie? Would you get a babysitter in order to see this movie?”
Obviously if you have an agent and you can get out to pitch your screenplay before you’ve written it, then it’s ideal, because you might actually get paid to write it, but you will at least create awareness of the project (“tracking”), hopefully short-circuiting other people who might be thinking along the same lines, and it’s an excuse to meet people. Good luck.
Or, just write screenplays for the sake of great artistic achievement and hope that lightning strikes. Or write for your own enjoyment of the process.
Why is pitching so important? Because the concept is the most important commercial aspect of most mainstream screenplays. A concept is what sells the project, unless you already have name talent attached, or your script is based on a bestselling novel or play. Bear in mind that your project has to be sold over and over again in order to get bought, let alone made into a movie. It has to be sold to the producer’s reader, the producer’s development person, the producer, the studio reader, the studio development exec, the studio “development team,” the production exec, the agent’s assistant, the agent’s reader, the agent… and none of them wants to open a script without already knowing that the concept is worth the time they’ll spend reading the script.
A producer would rather have a badly executed script with a great hook than a well written script with no hook. That’s because he can always hire another writer to rewrite the bad script, but there is nothing you can do to fix a script whose concept does not cry out to be made into a movie; unless, again, it has bankable talent attached or is based on a well-established “property” such as a bestseller, comic book or smash hit play.
What is a great hook? Ah, that’s what writers get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to know. But one question you might ask yourself are: How is this different? What did you put in your movie that has never been seen before? A character, a situation, a natural or artificial phenomenon we’ve never seen?
At the same time, sheer novelty can kill a project. The other question you must ask yourself is, “Is this a movie?” Can you really see this opening at the multiplex? Would you, your friends, your enemies, the girl at the Dairy Queen, your high school teacher, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, go see this movie? If not, no matter what the merits of your story and your writing, you may be writing an art film that will never get made.
In the first reel (the first 10 minutes), the movie makes a contract with its audience. The whole plot isn’t necessarily set up. Sometimes you just have an eight minute action sequence that tells you the movie’s an action movie. But the contract sets up the tone of the movie and the generic (“genre”) expectations of the audience. The ending of the movie is going to have to deliver the goods on the contract. In other words, if you set up a romantic contract, the boy better get the girl. If you set up a dramatic or other contract, there can be a romance in the movie, but the boy can lose or give up the girl, the girl can get murdered, the boy can get murdered, etc. Casablanca has a strong romance element, but the film opens with a Resistance operative being gunned down on the streets. If Rick went off with Ilsa, that wouldn’t deliver the goods on the contract. Instead, Rick gives Ilsa back to Viktor Laszlo because “the problems of three little people don’t add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” If you’d started the movie with Ilsa leaving Rick at the train station, you’d probably have to end it with Rick and Ilsa together.
You can’t be dogmatic about what makes a contract and what doesn’t, but a few points are obvious. An action movie has to open with a big action scene. A comedy needs a good laugh in the first three minutes. A drama had better get inside the skin of at least one central character. A horror movie better have something creepy or horrifying happen. And so on. If you haven’t made a contract with your audience by page ten, you’ve wasted the first reel.
How do you know what contract you want to make? Screenwriting books talk about “theme,” but I’m talking about “the goods.” What goods did you write the script to sell?
One of the most powerful tools, I have found, is to pitch your movie. It’s frightening and exhausting and I try to avoid it. But if I simply pitch my movie to someone, step by step, I find myself restructuring the story on the fly. Cutting out confusing stuff. Adding beats.
Personally, I enjoy working on paper more. But what seems to work on paper, once told on the fly, often sounds stupid or confusing or far too complicated, or sounds like it’s coming in at the wrong place. You have a natural sense for how to tell someone a story, but often it doesn’t trigger when you’re struggling with characters and dialogue. Pitching the story to someone forces your brain to invoke your natural story telling ability.
The ideal person to pitch your story to is not someone in show business. They’ll want to make improvements. As good as these may be, they are not your improvements. What you want is to see if your story sounds interesting to yourself as you pitch it, to see in the listener’s eyes where he or she is bored or thrilled, see where you’re confusing yourself.
Most writers are shy, so you may have trouble working up the energy to do it. If you don’t want to pitch the story to someone else, at least run through the plot in your head while you’re driving or walking somewhere. The parts where you can’t remember what comes next may be the parts that need the ost work. If you can’t remember what gets you from one step to the next each time you tell yourself the story, odds are you’re not seguéing smoothly. There is probably no very strong connection or sharp juxtaposition between one scene and the next, and you need to make your transition stronger.
You will also want to write your “pitch” down on paper in five or six pages. This is not an outline. The point isn’t to go from step to step, as such, but to sell the story. A written pitch is not as good as a spoken pitch, though, because you can convince yourself of things on paper that you would never get away with in person.
One of the most valuable benefits of telling your story out loud is it will immediately become obvious when your movie is not worth its effect on global warming. Say you’ve come up with one of those gangster / lowlife / serial killer movies that people write because they think the market wants them, but that they don’t really believe in their hearts. You start to tell it to your friend, and you suddenly realize that you’d rather be talking about a movie you just saw.
Good. Now you don’t have to write that script. It was a dumb idea anyway. Strictly from hunger.
Once you’ve pitched and pitched and pitched your idea, you’ll have it down pat, and you can write it down. Then when you’ve written your script, go back and see if you’ve delivered the goods the pitch promised. If not, rewrite until it does. But if you’ve really done the work of pitching your story, odds are you will have an extremely clear idea of the goods you’re promising to deliver, and you’ll have done your best to deliver them.
Casting your movie in your mind’s eye makes it easier to write a coherent character. Think of Robert Redford in practically every movie he’s ever done: he’s a similar character from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Three Days of the Condor to The Natural to Sneakers to Up Close and Personal. In a given situation, you know how Redford’s character will react. If your lead role is an aging golden boy, smarter than he looks but not brilliant, caught in a situation slightly beyond him, basically decent but not about to get in a fight about it unless he can’t avoid it … well, you can cast Redford in that role, can’t you?
Basically, as you imagine the scene, imagine it with a star playing the role.
What this buys you is consistency. Once you know Redford’s playing the part, you can instantly see that certain lines of dialog are just wrong. Redford’s character would never say something coarse, or cruel, or pretentious. Cast Redford in your mind, and the coarseness, cruelty or pretentiousness of certain lines will suddenly jump out at you, even though they seemed fine before. Similarly, certain actions become impossible. Redford’s character would never pick a fight, nor would he betray a friend.
You’re not really using the star, of course. You’re using their screen persona. Some actors have several. For example, Harrison Ford’s characters are always fundamentally good people who stand up for what’s right, but in his earlier work, he played wise-asses (Han Solo, Indiana Jones) and later on, grown-up boy scouts (Jack Ryan, Dr. Richard Kimble). Some actors have created such a powerful persona you can use it after just one movie. Sharon Stone’s ice queen from Basic Instinct can come in handy. Travis Bickle, the borderline psychotic from Taxi Driver, could easily show up in your story.
The key, of course, is making sure you’re casting the right character. I once wrote a space opera “starring” Harrison Ford. The problem was, he was supposed to be a dirty cop, a weak man who found himself in a situation where his innate decency forced him to side with the rebels even though it was suicide and he had better offers elsewhere. We weren’t supposed to know which way he would jump. Somehow the lines seemed mushy. I should have known better: Harrison Ford is never dirty or weak. The problem fixed itself when I “recast” with Kurt Russell, whose screen persona is shadier: someone you like, but don’t necessarily trust. The lines started to give themselves an edge. The character opened up. You didn’t know which way he’d jump.
You can also, of course, use your own friends or enemies, people whose reactions you will know.
Do not tell anyone you’ve cast the movie. Let the lines speak for themselves. If you’ve done your job right, everyone will know who they’d like to see play the role.
Casting your movie is not taught in schools, I guess because teachers fear it might kill your originality. Casting your movie is a technique of craft, not a technique of great art. But to my mind, it is easier to arrive at great art through craft than through raw art. Picasso studied traditional painting before he invented new ways of seeing. Without going through a phase of mimicking the old masters, he would not have been able to control his Cubist paintings. Later on, Picasso would periodically whip out a perfect traditional portrait of someone, just to remind people he knew what he was doing. Once you know how to cast a role in the mold of a star, you can break that mold when you choose, not merely by accident.
Note, however, that you cannot depend on your casting of the movie to make a character interesting or likeable. We, your readers, do not have Harrison Ford in our mind when we start reading. We will not start out caring about your lead character. You have to make him so compelling that we would care about him even if he were played by, say, Jim Belushi. In fact, if you cast an absolutely uncharismatic and neutral star in your mind’s eye, you can easily see if your dialog and situations are truly effective enough to make us care about him.
Remember, however, your hero needs to be compelling, but not necessarily likeable…
When development execs reject screenplays, they like to say:
- we don’t know enough about the characters
- we don’t like the main character
- the dialog is flat
- the plot is episodic
- the concept isn’t fresh and unique
These are often useless, dangerous comments, because addressing them directly will not do anything to fix the real problems with the screenplay.
The most obviously dangerous comment is “the dialog is flat.” Obviously, there is bad dialog, and one kind of bad dialog is flat, bland, listless, undistinguished dialog. But snappy dialog that jumps off the page is only one kind of good dialog, and it is only appropriate for certain characters and certain scripts. If you’re writing Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, your dialog better be crisp, snappy and bouncy. But if you’re writing anything like A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s first masterpiece, then your dialog wants to be spare and minimalist. Spare dialog can easily be accused of being flat, because the development executive is reading your script in bed late at night, exhausted, her eyes blurry, a pile of scripts on her night table, with her boyfriend snoring resentfully at her side. She is not putting anything into reading your lines, so if they don’t do the work for her, she will think them flat.
On the other hand, the actor will put thought, passion and talent into the lines, and the silences between them, and so your “flat” dialog may in fact be good.
“Your dialog is flat” means your screenplay is not working, but it probably means that your characters are not coming through as rounded people we care about. Fix the characters, and the dialog will fix itself.
Another dangerous comment is “your concept is not unique.” Most production companies don’t want unique concepts. They want great hooks, which is not the same thing. If you do something really unique, the odds are they will reject it as “too different.” After all, how many “unique” pictures do the studios make? If you do something mildly original, however, and your plot and characters don’t hold the reader’s attention, you may well hear the criticism that your concept isn’t unique. Fix the plot and characters, and the “uniqueness” of your concept will fix itself.
The issues of character and plot are less simple to unravel.
In theory, everyone wants a well-rounded, likable hero. When your hero does not come across well, you will often hear two criticisms:
- “We don’t know enough about the hero” or
- “Why do we like him?”
These are important questions, but they’re often followed up by a request to give us specific scenes that fix the problem. The classic comment is “We don’t know anything about the hero’s background.” However, when you change the screenplay so you know about the character’s past, they then reject the picture for different reasons. If you’re a competent screenwriter, what “I want to know more about this character’s past” almost always means is, “I don’t get your character” which is not the same.
For a good example of a silly attempt at fleshing out a character, look at Gremlins, where Phoebe Cates explains that she hates Christmas because her dad died on Christmas. Little savage pointy-eared beasties are running amok. Who cares whether she likes Christmas or not?
For a refreshing reversal, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer:
Buffy: “Puppets give me the wiggins. Ever since I was eight.”
Willow: “What happened?”
Buffy: “I saw a puppet, it gave me the wiggins. There really isn’t a story there.”
Your movie may be about the characters resolving issues from their past. But most hit movies, and at least half of all great movies, give their heros a throwaway past to evade the development exec, or none at all. For example, Dr. Richard Kimble doesn’t change worth a damn in The Fugitive. His backstory is non-existent, too. His wife is killed on screen, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to find out who dunnit. Did anyone let a development executive anywhere near The Fugitive? The hell they did. It was production executives and producers all the way, from the one who bought the rights to the tv series to the one who offered it to Harrison Ford. Fact is, if you have a star, we already know who he is.
On a dramatic level, many heros are heros because they are steadfast and don’t change their character at all. We don’t need to know their past, because they embody something that is greater than any one man’s past. What was Shane like as a lad? Who was that masked man? You mean… you don’t know?
I am going to rant about the “rubber ducky” theory of backstory for a little while.
The “rubber ducky” is my phrase for when the hero or villain, at a lull in the action, explains that he is what he is because his mother took away his rubber ducky when he was three. It is always a nice scene, well acted, beautifully lit, with a powerfully written monolog that the writer spent days on.
The character’s past may be important to your story, Batman being a good example. But if it is, that past generally demands more attention than one scene. It often gets several flashbacks, and sometimes explodes into the climactic scene itself. It may be the only thing rooting an action movie in any emotional reality at all, or it may reveal information that is critical to the outcome of the movie, each of which The Terminator is a good example for. But if all you’re talking about is giving your hero more emotional depth, you are running the risk of awakening the Rubby Ducky.
As an example of a powerful movie in which the Rubber Ducky makes no appearance, in A Fistful of Dollars, when the Man with No Name risks his life to rescue the little family of three from the crossfire, the husband asks, “Mister, why are you doing all this for us.” The story goes that in the script there was some godawful long speech explaining the Man with No Name’s backstory, and Clint Eastwood asked Sergio Leone, “Can’t I just say, ‘Cause once there was a family just like yours … and there was no one to help’?” So we never got to hear about his rubber ducky.
Would it have improved the movie if we had?
When readers / development execs / actors haven’t bothered to read carefully and ask the question “What sort of person is this character, based on the way he reacts to the situations in the script?,” they feel that the character is flat, and they ask for a rubber ducky. Then if the picture becomes a go, actors get very attached to the rubber ducky scene, because it shows they can Act. So the ducky stays in the picture.
But beware: if they’re asking for the rubber ducky, the picture isn’t working for them. The solution may be wrong, but the problem is still there. There’s something missing.
There are two ways we know about a character:
- what we see them do and say, and
- what they or other people tell us about themselves.
Actions speak louder than words. What people do physically and what they do by talking to other people, is far more telling than what people tell us about themselves.
If you do not want to fill our ears with a sad tale of woe, then make sure that the character does things – little or big things – that show us who s/he is. In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble’s habit of putting himself at risk of being sent back to jail in order to help strangers, makes us care about him more than any story he could possibly tell could.
This technique is harder to use than the rubber ducky, but often more effective, and it doesn’t stop the story’s forward motion.
Note that I am not against telling the character’s backstory. Often a character will tell about his past in order to explain to another character why he needs to do what he’s going to do, or to get the other character to do something. That’s merely good drama, using speech to get results. What I’m arguing against is the comment “we don’t know enough about him,” which is so often a red herring.