Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Screenwriting panel at Moniff

The Monadnock International Film Festival runs this week in Keene, New Hampshire and I will be heading up a panel this Friday, April 11th from 4-5 pm on the process of screenwriting with Hollywood screenwriter Clare Sera, whose latest film, Blended, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, opens nationally on May 14th.
Clare and I have known each other for many years and she is on the faculty of the MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen that I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. The two of us will discuss the multi-layered process involved with creating a successful screenplay and the experiences she has had in Hollywood developing her career as a screenwriter.  It should be a lively and informative session. I'm looking forward to this and hope you can join us.

The panel will be held at the Courtyard Mariott Hotel Bar and Lounge in downtown Keene from 4-5 pm this Friday afternoon, April 11th.  The event is free and open to the public.
Please join us if you can.  And check out the Monadnock International Film Festival website for all the films and events being offered in this jam-packed three day festival.  It's a very special weekend and the films being screened--all in pre-release--are some of the best new projects out there, many of which have won major awards this year at Sundance, South by Southwest, and other leading festivals.

Hope to see you there!

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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 20-29.  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 25, 2014

Script Writing Master Class April 5 2014

Under the auspices of the New Hampshire Institute of Art, I'm teaching a day-long Master Class/Workshop in Writing for Stage and Screen on Saturday, April 5 from 10 am to 4:30 pm in Manchester, NH.

This intensive class is designed to be an introduction or review of the process of developing an idea into a working draft of a play or screenplay.  It will cover the basics of formulating your story idea, techniques of in-depth character exploration, investigating the back story, analyzing the story structural components, inventing plot, charting out the dramatic shape of a story, techniques of good dialogue writing, and tips for writing of the first draft and beyond.   Numerous exercises and handouts will guide you through the writing process as it unfolds.


I've taught a version of this master class for several years around the country.  It's always been a lively and stimulating time for me and participants.  If you're within shouting distance of Manchester on April 5, I hope you'll consider joining us.

More details can be found here and you can register here.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency, although the April 1st deadline is fast approaching.  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 11, 2014

An essential step in the script writing process

I often wonder why so many playwrights and screenwriters--both beginners and experienced--don't consider pre-writing exploratory work more essential in their creative process.  I know that I harp on this a lot on this blog and certainly to my students in my MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen.  But I am continually amazed by the number of writers I consistently come in contact with who don't have a tried and true method of initial exploration of their characters and other aspects of their story before tackling their first draft.

Is it simply impatience trumping common sense?  Is it a belief that the writer has such innate talent and genius that he or she can just make up a brilliant script as that draft is written?  Or that the backstory is so closely based on the writer's own life experience that there's no need to spend any time upfront exploring it?  Or that these kind of "discoveries"--including what the story is ultimately communicating to the audience--are best left to be surprises that pop out of the writing of that draft?  Or that if thorough pre-writing work is undertaken the sense of adventure of actually writing pages of script somehow vanishes or is reduced to drudgery?

What I do know is that when writers are introduced to a method of thoroughly exploring a story's backstory before plunging into draft, a whole new world opens up for them in terms of their own creative process.  Suddenly characters become more alive and begin to breathe.  Subtext takes on a power the writer hasn't experienced before.  The story being developed opens up and the characters themselves begin to dictate action and behavior to a much greater degree, and as a result true and genuine surprises present themselves.  The writing of the draft becomes much more an experience of writing from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

Because stage and screen stories are about people taking journeys from one place to another and the changes that those people undergo in the process and the discoveries they make about themselves and their world, it only stands to reason that the writers of these stories need to know who their characters are in the most thorough possible way as they walk up to the starting line of the tale they are about to enter.  It's the only sure way that the writer can hope to produce a script that has power and any real legs.

There are a number of useful exercises out there that lead the writer into this pre-writing discovery phase.  Several are laid out in my book The Playwright's Process, where the emphasis is on character exploration, both in terms of straight forward and detailed biography and deeper, emotionally rich backstory events in a character's life that have shaped who they are up to the start of the story the script is going to embrace.  I suggest you try some of these explorations or others with the same focus if you haven't already.  I have little doubt that your writing process will be greatly enriched, taking on a new sense of adventure, and that your work takes on a new power and depth.

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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.  We are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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.    

Monday, March 3, 2014

What actors can teach script writers

The process an actor goes through in getting inside a role and bringing it to life has a lot of similarities to what a writer should experience in creating a role on the page.  I know that sounds obvious, a given in our business.  But I think it's worth looking a little deeper.

In my career I've always been struck by how many good writers I've worked with started out as serious actors.  And they have often shared with me that, to them, the creative process is much the same when creating roles, whether on the page, the stage, or in front of a camera.  Of course, not all writers are actors and vice versa, but even those who haven't combined the two artforms in their careers still acknowledge that the similarities are striking and that getting inside a role requires the same prep work and inner emotional connections between artist and fictional character being brought to life.

One of the most important attributes of a great performance on stage or film is the ability of the actor to play the subtext of a scene.  All successful actors possess the gift of being able to bring to life what's really going on under the surface when their actual lines are often saying something quite different.  This is a critical aspect of the actor's craft and what separates the brilliant from the average and raises acting into the realm of art--the ability of inviting an audience into a character's unspoken thought processes and inner life.  The actor who can dig deep and pull those hidden but very operative strings of his or her role in a story is the actor who will build a successful career and often reach stardom.

My contention is that the same principle applies to playwrights and screenwriters.  And that studying the actor's craft and how great actors prepare for and pull off amazing performances will pay huge dividends in terms of the aliveness of a writer's work.  It all starts with thorough preparation, exploring a character's past and present, and discovering what makes him or her tick.  It involves asking the right questions, like what baggage both emotionally and memory-wise is this character carrying with them into my story?  What is really going on under the surface of each line?  What is the throughline of each character and how does the experience of the story change them as human beings?  What does the diction and "voice" of the character tell us about who the person is and what they think of themselves and the world around them?

All good actors ask these kinds of questions in preparing for every role they play.  And it's the writers who supply the answers or at least hint at the answers who will be rewarded by great performances and who will stand a much better chance of experiencing their stories brought to life with richness and depth.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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 19, 2014

Exposing the subtext of your story

Okay, so you've done a lot of character exploratory work, maybe even written some backstory scenes between major characters.  You've been thinking about plot and central character arc and where you want your script to land--in other words, you've been working at a structural framework or basic bones of the script that seems reasonable.  And you're now finally sensing that maybe you're ready to move on in the process, leave all this pre-writing work behind, and take the plunge into the writing of your first draft.

Here's something to keep in mind as you stand on the edge of that diving board preparing to jump off.

It's basically very simple, actually.  Just remember that your script is only the tip of the iceberg--the surface layer of a deeply submerged whole.  Your job now is to write your pages in such a way that there are constant albeit often indirect glimpses into that submerged part of your story, or subtext--that rich stew of intellectual and emotional "stuff" always hovering just under the surface--that you've explored in your pre-writing work. And you tap into this deeper level and make it felt and understood by what you leave unsaid. As a result, your audience is seduced into making its own connections between the surface and what lies underneath and in the process becomes fiercely engaged with the script to get the whole story.  

Take Downton Abbey for example (there, I admit I'm a fan of this lovely period soap opera).  One of the things writer and creator Julian Fellowes does well is constantly invite us as viewers to "lean into" the unfolding story by never having a character say something that we already know or suspect--especially when it comes to the smouldering subtext that hovers underneath each character's conscious present reality like hot coals in an ash bin.  We are allowed to engage with this inner life of the overreaching story and the characters that bring it to life because the subtext is always operating and "exposed" moment by moment, yet is never directly referred to nor ever actually allowed to crack the surface.  And this is one of the main reasons that the series works so well, episode after episode, year after year.

So always write with this dynamic in mind.  It's this quality more than any other that separates good scripts from bad.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency until April 1st.  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.






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Friday, February 7, 2014

"Who are you trying to kid?"--pushing the writer's panic button


I recently had an MFA student of mine email me about feeling overwhelmed as she was in the initial stages of developing a new idea for a play.  She’s a brilliant wordsmith and has a wonderful ability to infuse her characters with beating hearts.  But she sensed the immense journey ahead of her and how so much of the route before her was uncharted, full of potential pitfalls and misleading and seductive byways and crossroads with no directional signposts pointing the way to an eventual destination she wasn’t sure she’d even recognize when and if she ever got there.  She as yet had no road map to guide her through the wilderness of a story as yet untold.  And she confessed to me that she at times was succumbing to pushing the writer’s panic button labelled “who are you trying to kid?”

This is what I wrote back to her: 

Hi--  Writing a full-length script is a big thing.  It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling overwhelmed.  I fight it all the time.  But the thing to keep in mind constantly is that scripts are written baby step by baby step and one day at a time.  It's that wonderful word "process" that you have to keep before you always. Diligently working through pre-writing character explorations, diving into backstory scenes, slowly experimenting with plot elements and the order that potential scenes might be laid out.  Trying things, rejecting things, trying other things.  Sleeping on problems or roadblocks and letting the subconscious work on it.  Playing into your obstinate side and not giving up when answers and solutions don’t automatically present themselves.  I have often told my students not to be intimidated when reading a published play or seeing a professional production of a hit play or film and instead to constantly remind themselves that that writer went through the same step by step process that you're going through, with the same struggles and doubts and frustrations and peeling off one layer at a time, and that only after a lot of work, false starts, and perhaps several rewrites did they finally arrive at the amazing work you're reading or experiencing in the theatre.   

So take a deep breath (or as many as you need) and keep at it.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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, February 4, 2014

Starting with story fundamentals

I realize that in the past I've written several blogs hitting on the absolute necessity of laying down the basic building blocks of your story before plunging into draft.  And, of course, I'm not alone in stressing this essential first step.  Chris Volger (The Writer's Journey) and Blake Snyder (Save The Cat!), among many others, have written wildly successful and very good books on the subject.  I've even written a book on it.

In spite of all the excellent how-to manuals out there, however, for some strange reason a lot of writers insist on finding the foundational elements of their story only through the process of writing seemingly endless pages of script.  I'm not sure why this is so prevalent when common sense says that you can't build a house on sand. Nevertheless, these writers insist that truly authentic stories can only emerge organically from trial and error and through the process of actually writing what they think is their first draft.

In truth, these writers, in my opinion, are not writing a draft at all.  Rather, they're exercising their right to do a ton load of exploratory writing to find their story.  There's nothing wrong with working this way, of course.  It's just that it should be understood that it usually involves taking a long circuitous route to go a very short distance.  And there is a real danger always lurking with this approach and I call it the tyranny of the written.  What should happen at some point in this exercise, when most or all the story structural discoveries have finally been uncovered, is that these writers need to stop this work, start pulling out the story building blocks from the multitude of pages they've produced, build their structural framework, and then, and only then, plunge into their real first draft.  The problem with a lot of these writers, however, is that they think they've already written their draft when they get to a hundred fifty to two hundred or more pages of this exploratory work.  But, alas, in almost all cases, what they're looking at is a slough of pages that have only helped them uncover what their real story is all about.

All that's required is an initial process of developing an idea for a story so that you're sure you have the proper footings upon which to build your play or screenplay.  It's not rocket science.  And there are many guides available to help you do this.  But as almost any successful playwright or screenwriter will tell you, it's a critical first step in the creation of a script that'll have legs.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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.