Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A book on screenwriting worth a review...

This summer I'm spending some time taking another look at a number of classic screenwriting books. Last week I reread Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You'll Ever Need.  First published ten years ago, it's a quick and easy read and although some writers have objected to his more "commercial" approach to tackling the development of a story idea into a viable script, what he lays out in basic, no nonsense terms still pretty much holds up.
 
Snyder focuses on the common sense basic dramatic ingredients that one way or another need to be operating in your story if it's going to work.  He uses the Hollywood insider lingo and even has a long glossary of terms at the back of the book he's labelled "From A to Z, a review of every slangy expression and Hollywood-inside-the-310-area-code term."

In my opinion, his Chapter 4 is one of the most valuable.  It's titled "Let's Beat It Out," presenting a simple, easy to follow breakdown of how a story in one way or another needs to be structured for a screenplay.

You may find his overall approach too "Hollywood" for your own approach to the writing process, but the book still serves as a good and concise review of the basics--something I find useful from time to time.

p.s.  Snyder also has two companion books that have appeared since.  They are Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told (2007) that breaks down structurally fifty successful films of the last forty years and Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into...and Out of (2009) that further refines his approach to developing viable stories for the screen.  Both are also well worth a look.

                                   *                    *                   *                   *


I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.

 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Script writer rejuvenation in ten days...

Late last month, I headed up our latest MFA program in Writing for Stage and Screen residency in Peterborough, New Hampshire.  It was an extraordinary ten day affair--a non-stop intensive in all aspects of script writing and then some.  We all left the residency exhausted, but stimulated and fully charged for the semester ahead.

This low-residency approach to earning the MFA degree in our field has proven to be highly successful for us.  Our students arrive from all over the country (plus Puerto Rico and Canada) for these intensives twice a year, in June and January.  Each ten-day gathering offers classes on various elements of the craft and the "biz" taught by our faculty of established professional writers as well as by special Visiting Artists who are invited to give talks and meet with students.  Students pitch their new ideas they're considering tackling for the upcoming semester and there's a tremendous amount of one-on-one give and take between students and faculty, who also serve as mentors during the semester.  All of our students leave each residency ready to launch into their next major script project.

At the heart of each of these ten-day gatherings, however, are the script readings with professional actors (SAG and AEA) of new student work written during the semester just ended--an indispensable and unique aspect our program.  Feedback from all the professionals involved is invaluable.


This residency was special for us in that we had our first three students graduating from our program (from left to right below: Steve Ashworth, Edmonton, Canada; Vicki Peterson, Los Angeles, California; and Jared Eberlein, Santa Barbara, California). And their final thesis projects were given several hours of rehearsal and their readings were staged for a public audience as opposed to the more in-house table readings given to the other student scripts.

 
It sounds like a lot to cram into ten days and it is.  But these intensives, among other things, remind us all--both students and faculty--as to why we are in this crazy business to begin with.  We are storytellers working in a highly collaborative art form.  And coming together to work, study, share ideas, and gain new insights about our work is what we all need and embrace throughout our careers.  

                                   *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Preparing for a script reading marathon

I'm currently in the midst of casting and scheduling twelve full-length script readings as part of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen that I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

A major feature of the program is to offer our student writers the opportunity to experience their scripts (both plays and screenplays) come alive and given voice for the first time by professional actors--an initial test of their new material written during the semester just ended--and to get valuable feedback from faculty (all professional writers), fellow students, the actors participating, as well as other invited professionals. We are committed to this aspect of our program because it's the only true way for writers to learn what works and what doesn't and to become a part of the collaborative process that our industry embraces.

But pulling all this off is not an easy task.  Our residency is ten days long and two of these days are taken up with other aspects of the learning process--Visiting Artist talks, special elective courses, and talks by graduating students.  And in the eight days remaining, the readings have to be fitted in between intensive classroom work where various elements of the craft and business of script writing are explored in-depth.  Not to mention having to work around actor schedules.

So "marathon" is a pretty accurate word to describe this cornucopia of new work being released for the first time, all of which takes place in various conducive venues in our beautiful Peterborough, NH homebase.  Our residencies have become a glorified script writers' camp where students and other artists from all over the country and Canada gather to celebrate and study our art.  Crazy as it gets at times, it's where our students learn how to be successful storytellers in a field that turns their stories into living performances bound for the world's stages and screens.

We may all leave the residency staggering home from sheer exhaustion (coupled with a large dose of inspiration), but we wouldn't have it any other way.

                                   *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28 2015.  We are now considering applications for starting the program in January 2016.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The importance of backstory in scriptwriting

I was sitting on our porch last night with my wife discussing a character that plays a prominent role in the novel she's preparing to write.  The character is the grandfather of the heroine and we were talking about the wisdom the man has gained in his long life and how he will impart aspects of this wisdom to his granddaughter as she faces major obstacles in the story.

But what was most interesting in our discussion was my wife's understanding of how critical it is to have fully explored the backstory of this grandfather so when she gets to writing the actual draft of her novel--with all it's twists and turns and surprises that suddenly pop to the surface--she is armed with this man's rich life's history and all the lessons learned along the way.

We both agreed that writing a piece a fiction, whether it be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, a stage play or anything in between, the writer needs to approach characters as if they were real people with real pasts that have shaped who they have become.  Then when they enter the story and engage with the circumstances that the plot throws at them, they draw on this accumulated experience and respond to the situations facing them in a way that rings true and consistent with who they are.  Just like in real life.

Pre-draft backstory work, in other words, is one of the keys to good writing.  A writer may have an abundance of talent--even be overflowing with it--but if he or she begins writing the actual pages of a story without thoroughly exploring the backstories of the characters who will populate the tale, chances are good that the effort will end up stillborn.  Because it's the people in the story who must ring true and the only way for that to happen is to know intimately who and what has shaped them and to have an exhaustive knowledge of the life they have led before first walking into the story.  Much of the details of this exploration might not ever be fully revealed in the actual pages of the finished work, but in a very real sense it will be there all the same.

                                    *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28 2015.  We are now considering applications for starting the program in  January 2016.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.



Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pre-draft story development work in script writing...

The biggest issue regarding the script writing process that keeps coming up with writers I work with is their lack of thorough and exhaustive pre-draft exploratory work.  So much so, in fact, that I'm writing a new book on the subject.

The book will dig into how to initially test and develop new story ideas from a structural standpoint and also lay out a process of inventing vibrant backstories that bring characters fully to life.   The overall goal will be to help writers discover, explore, and illuminate the nine-tenths of their stories that will lie submerged under the surface of the script itself.

I can't count the times that a play or screenplay is sent to me for analysis that clearly was written without this pre-draft work being done thoroughly.  The characters remain largely two-dimensional, there are few surprises that turn out to be organically central to the story, and the audience is not consistently invited to "lean into" the unfolding tale and be asked to connect the dots themselves.  In other words, the subtext of the script--the underpinnings of everything your story is attempting to accomplish--is not brought fully to life because it hasn't been adequately explored by the writer before getting into draft.  I would say that this is the biggest single mistake most script writers make.

My book The Playwright's Process begins to address this issue, but my hope is that the new book will lay out in detail how best to approach this critical phase of creating a successful script.  My approach is similar to a builder designing and constructing the plans for a new house, with a concentration on the hidden foundational elements that must be explored and in place before the actual house that's to be built on top of it can hope to stand and endure the load of the structure and the elements of time and weather.  And anyone who works successfully in our business knows full well that any script that stands half a chance of weathering the professional gauntlet it will face once released to the world will have to have its own sub-surface foundational elements solidly in place.

                                    *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28, 2015 and we are still considering applications for starting the program this June as well as for a January 2016 start.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant. 




Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Flannery O'Connor on writer discipline

Recently a successful writer friend of mine sent me Flannery O'Connor's thoughts on discipline for the writer.  It was included in a letter O'Connor wrote to her friend Cecil Dawkins:

"I'm a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound.  You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.  I see it happen all the time.  Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do.  I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.  This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours.  Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted.  Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.  And the fact is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there."

That pretty much covers the topic.

                                   *                    *                   *                   *


I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program in June.   I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A total immersion script writing experience...

Last month we held our semi-annual MFA residency for the program I run in Writing for Stage and Screen out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  It was jammed-packed with classes, one-on-one sessions with students and faculty and table readings of the eleven full-length plays and screenplays that students had written during the fall semester.

A large group of professional actors and other theatre and film professionals joined us for the readings and the lengthy feedback sessions that followed each of them.  


By all accounts, this was an extraordinary time for all involved.  We--students, faculty, and all the other artists who were a part of the residency--were given the special opportunity to live and breath our art, to celebrate what we do and to share new work in a total immersion experience.  All students in the program left the residency stimulated and charged to begin work on their new projects for the spring semester with their assigned mentors.  Our team of professionals who serve on our faculty and as guest artists were also recharged.  Everyone was energized and reminded of why we are in this business in the first place--to create good stories that have something meaningful to offer the world.    

The over-arching goal of our MFA program is for every student to explore and develop his or her own writing process--taking an initial idea and developing it through the many phases of creating a viable script, including finding the structural underpinnings, exploring characters and backstory, inventing a workable plot outline, and writing a working draft that is then given first voice by actors. And developing this process--a process that is continually refined over the creation of several scripts as each student develops a body of work--is the key to mastering the craft of writing for the stage and screen.

                                    *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs June 19-28, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program in June.   I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.