Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The script writing conundrum--when to plunge into draft?

There are many theories floating around out there about when it's optimal to plunge into writing your first draft.  How much prep work, backstory exploration, and other character work is really necessary? How detailed does one have to get regarding the story structure and coming up with an extensive plot outline, treatment, and/or beat sheet?  At what point do you stop all the prep work and let the actual journey begin?  When do you allow yourself to head off into the wilderness and see where it leads...?

Some writers let their scripts evolve almost entirely in the actual writing of a preliminary draft. They make their discoveries pretty much exclusively as they turn out pages--lots of pages.  My dear friend N. Richard Nash, author of The Rainmaker and many other plays, once told me that he often accumulated hundreds of pages in his first foray into draft in his search for the actual play he wanted to end up with.  Horton Foote worked in a somewhat similar way, discovering the inner workings of the story as he went along, whether it was a play or screenplay.

At the other end of the spectrum--the one I recommend, especially if you are early in your writing career--is the commitment to extensive pre-draft exploration of the characters' backstories which in turn triggers the invention of a workable story/plot structure of your script-in-the-making.  For most writers, young and old, this approach seems to be favored.  And for good reason.

As I've said before in this blog, writing a viable script is like building a solid house.  You start with the foundation and slowly build upon it.  What the buyer eventually sees on the outside is the finished edifice, with its siding and trim, its color and overall design.  Inside they experience the layout of the rooms and the interior "feel."  What they don't see is the infrastructure, the framing, the plumbing, the wiring, the foundation below the frost line, etc.  But there would be no house to live in if these hidden elements weren't securely in place.

An MFA student of mine recently put it nicely:  "It's always a good idea to go into the first draft with a strong sense of story structure rather than try and fix a mound of problems later."  I couldn't say it better.  You want to begin the journey into draft with a pretty detailed road map of your chosen route within reach. Of course, surprises will happen once you're on your way, but these should be welcomed and explored.  But you always have your map on the seat next to you when you get lost and need to find your way back to the main highway.

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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, August 18, 2015

The script writer's secret weapon...

I was talking to one of our advanced MFA students the other day, a writer who I'm mentoring this semester and who will graduate from our program this coming January.  We were discussing the story development of his latest project, a play with interesting and complicated character relationships.  He was frustrated by certain elements that weren't falling into place quite yet even though he was already deep into his pre-draft exploratory work.

I found myself telling him something that I tell fellow writers all the time.

What I shared was that often elements of a developing story simply need some time to emerge and fall into place.  And to help this along the writer often has to hand off the problem area (or areas) to his or her subconscious for a time and let that part of his or her brain sort things out. When ideas for a solution are formulated down there in that subterranean part of the mind, those ideas will be pushed up to the conscious mind and the writer can take it from there.

The key to having this work is to totally believe that this is exactly how script problems get solved. In other words, you have to literally talk to your subconscious as if it was a separate person running a powerful think tank installed deep down there in your skull.  Give this "person" your issue or problem areas to mull over and mediate on and request that when they have found possible solutions to send them back up to you.  And remember, this think tank is fully aware of all the work and thinking you've already done on the project--every shred of it.

Give a time limit--maybe a day or two, maybe when you are going to the shore or the mountains for a week with the family to relax and take a break from your writing.  And trust that this part of your brain has heard you and indeed is going to work hard while you float off thinking about anything but your script.

As I say, the key to success with this simple little game you play with yourself is trusting that it will work.  Any rolling of the eyes or skepticism that this is too easy or simplistic or only wishful thinking will short circuit the process.  Just believe that this is the way writers solve many of their most difficult story issues and it will work.  Promise.  Every successful writer I know uses this as a central part of their process to one degree of another.

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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, August 11, 2015

Pre-draft exploratory work: a key to successful scriptwriting

I know I keep hammering on this, but taking the time and effort to do extensive backstory exploration on your characters, the milestone events in their lives, and their timelines pays huge dividends when you begin serious work on structuring your story.  This is the one area that the better books on screenwriting and playwriting tend to short change and sometimes ignore altogether, good as they are at dealing with story structure and how to construct a viable script.  And my strong belief--based on my own experience as a writer and the consistent positive results achieved by my many clients and MFA students--is that taking the time to thoroughly explore the backstories of your characters is an important key to successful script writing.

Granted, when you first come up with a new story idea it's important to pin down the basics of what might motor the script in terms of central character, his or her external want and internal need, the other potential major characters and how they might put up barriers and create the tension and conflict in your central figure's arc or journey, and finally, giving some thought as to where the story might land and what kind of statement that ending is leaving with your audience. This is the way you initially test a new idea to see if it might have the "stuff" needed for you to begin to dig deeper.

However, it's at this point that many writers make a mistake.  If they're still excited by the idea, they're eager to push ahead and immediately attempt to invent and develop their plot in some detail, following one or more of the many structural paradigms commonly used in our field.  The problem is that they're skipping a critical step in the process, namely stepping back at this point and taking the time to thoroughly explore the backstories of the characters, their voices, and the baggage they bring with them into the story that's going to be the script itself.  In other words, getting to know the major players as real people with real pasts who bring to the story unique personalities with powerful emotional memories.

Because it's doing this exploratory work that arms the writer with a rich understanding of that nine-tenths of their story that's going to always be hovering there under the surface.  And there's no better way to enter into the plot invention phase of the process than with this exploratory work at your disposal.

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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, August 4, 2015

A new book on screenwriting well worth a read...

There's a new book on screenwriting published this past January that I recommend you take a look at if you haven't already:  Notes to Screenwriters: Advancing Your Story, Screenplay, and Career with Whatever Hollywood Throws at You written by Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi.


The authors both live and work in Los Angeles and in addition to being screenwriters themselves run their own script consulting firm called Catharsis.

What's special about this book is its detailed focus on craft.  Not just the craft elements and mechanics involved in writing a viable script, but also on the craft of launching, building, and sustaining a successful career as a screenwriter.  This is a clear, practical manual written by folks who have been and are currently in the trenches of this oftentimes frustrating and seemingly impossible business.  And as the title points out, the book covers just about everything the biz can throw at you.

One of the special and unique aspects regarding this book is that co-author Vicki Peterson just graduated in June with her MFA degree from the Writing for Stage and Screen program I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  It's been wonderful having Vicki as a student in the program over the past two years. She was able to walk the line with ease between being a student and an established working professional and needless to say her contributions to the program were considerable.  We'll miss Vicki as a student but welcome her as an alum and as a permanent member of our growing network of working writers.  And, of course, her excellent book will remain on our reading list far into the future.

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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 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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.