An Obligatory Post About the Craft

Let me take a brief break from yammering on about the details of my oh-so-fascinating personal life to talk a little bit about the craft of screenwriting. Not that I actually know anything about the subject — if I did, I’d be typing this on my $20,000 Ego Bentley laptop on the deck of my palatial home in Malibu, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the paparazzi below while I wait for Xavier, my trusty manservant, to return from polishing the Learjet so he can refill my tea, deliver the latest pages from my crack team of UCLA grad students working on my latest rewrite for Spielberg, and maybe fetch a couple of nubile starlets to for me to ruthlessly “audition” and toss aside like used Kleenex.

Okay, maybe not. But really, what do I know? I’m no intellectual ball of fire — analytical thinking is not my strong suit, as the Missus and anybody who’s ever watched me try to play cards can attest. There are plenty of screenwriting books out there that will tell you most of what you need to know, and many talented writers online who can fill in the rest. What do I have to contribute?

Well, I guess I have the following — just a few things to keep in mind, stuff so obvious that sometimes it’s easy to forget it. Let’s call the list…


  1. STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE. Learn it, live it. I am a firm believer in the Lew Hunter/UCLA model: Inciting Incident at page 10, the Dilemma at 17, No Turning Back (Act I Curtain) at 30, Reversal (Raising the Stakes) at 45, Midpoint (The Tentpole: What The Movie’s About/Protagonist Goes From Passive to Active) at 60, Another Reversal (False Ending) at 75, The Big Gloom (Act II Curtain) at 90, and into the climax and the final fade out by page 110. My only modification to this paradigm has been to sometimes shorten the length of Act I: now that I’m writing comedies, development folks have told me to keep the first act down to 20 pages so we can get into the fun part of the story quicker and have the finished draft clock in around 100-105 pages. Some would argue that 20 pages is way too short for Act I, and sometimes that’s true; I’ve found that 25 pages works better for me, in which case you’d move the other plot points up five pages (45 becomes 40, 60 becomes 55, etc.). Regardless, you gotta know your classical structure and master it. Trust me, it makes life easier on everybody.
  2. YOU THINK YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS PERFECT?  IT’S NOT. There’s nothing better than finishing a first draft, especially if it ran off painlessly.  That doesn’t mean it’s any good.  Let it sit a while (at least a week, preferably three or four), come back and take a long, hard look at it.  Are there any glaring problems?  Try to fix them.  Don’t see any problems?  You’re still too close to the thing — put it back in the drawer for another week.  Repeat the process.  Then give the tweaked draft to your Trusted Readers for some honest feedback.
  3. GET SOME TRUSTED READERS. Join a writing group.  Take a workshop class.  Avoid your family.  (That said, my wife is the first person who reads anything I write.  She has a fantastic critical sense.  I lucked out.  Maybe you did, too.)  You need 3-5 people who will not bullshit you, will not coddle you, but won’t crush your spirit as they tell you what they think is wrong with your script.
  4. LISTEN TO THE FEEDBACK.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes you’ll instantly reject a note, then eventually realize it’s 100% dead on.
  5. …. BUT KNOW WHEN TO IGNORE IT.  Occasionally, somebody will give you a note that’s a fantastic idea, but one that would completely change your story.  Maybe you should take it — your screenplay will be that much stronger.  But other times, implementing the note will ruin what you’ve got and kill your script.  A great idea can be completely wrong for the story you want to tell.  You have to know what you’re trying to say in order to tell the difference.
  6. DON’T RUSH THE PROCESS. In the normal industry development cycle, a professional writer usually has 12 weeks to turn in a draft.  The writing of your own spec, however, has no such timetable; take advantage of this.  Sure, it’ll help in the long run if you can learn to write quickly, but you only get one shot with a reader.  Make sure your script is as good as it can be, no matter how many drafts you’ve churned out over however many months it’s taken.
  7. … BUT DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a script is DOA.  If you’ve been struggling on that first draft for the past 15 months, maybe it’s time to admit that you’re not ready to write it.  I’ve spent years — YEARS — on projects that never came together.  Was all that time wasted?  Not really — any writing is better than not writing.  But if I had been honest with myself, I would have put aside an idea after three weeks instead of ten months.  Maybe by walking away for a while, a piece of the puzzle will come to you out of the blue and you can return to the project with this new bit of knowledge.  Everybody is different, of course, but personally, if I’m spending more than a year on a script, something is very, very wrong.
  8. KNOW WHEN YOU REALLY ARE DONE. How do you know?  My rule of thumb is this — if you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve taken the story as far as you can (over however many drafts it takes) and none of your Trusted Readers can agree on what needs to be changed, then the script is ready.  At this point, it is what it is.  Of course, this is only the beginning — you’ll be rewriting your baby until the day it hits the theater or the DVD rack or dies in development hell.  But as a fresh spec, this the end of the line.
  9. DON’T BE BORING.  You’d think this one would be a no-brainer.  You’d be surprised.  Take a serious look at your story — have we seen it before?  What’s the twist?  Where does the fresh air come in from?  Bolting together tried ‘n’ true archetypes (or cliches, to put it less charitably) can still work, but it’s an uphill battle.  You need a hook.  Pretend you’ve got a crime story about the missing wife of a prominent Los Angeles businessman.  If you make the protagonist a tough-but-tender private eye, you’ve got just about ever detective story written since Raymond Chandler perfected the form half a century ago.  Make the protagonist an amiable stoner and his two bowling buddies, and you’ve got THE BIG LEBOWSKI.  Which movie would YOU rather see these days?
  10. THERE’S ALWAYS ANOTHER CHANCE.  Think you blew your big break?  Relax — there’s always another opportunity if you stick with it.  Just take a look at what went wrong, and try not to make the same mistake(s) next time.  I am living proof that this works.

So there — I feel much better, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest.  Hope this list helps a little, or at least isn’t too insulting in its obviousness.  I’m climbing off my rickety soapbox now.

We will resume our regularly scheduled navel-gazing with the next post!

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4 Comments on “An Obligatory Post About the Craft”

  1. Paul H. Says:

    Great post. There are some things that are always worth repeating and it’s great to see you go through them with us.

    I’m a big fan of structure too and I wanted to ask you something along these lines. As a comedy writer what do you think of the second reversal or false ending? Comedies are supposed to have Up endings so it makes sense for the false ending to also be Up. The end of the second act is where all hope should appear lost. Do you think the false ending should generally be a happy moment in a comedy? Is this the ray of sunshine moment where it looks like everything is going to work out?

  2. writerdad303 Says:

    Thanks, Paul H! And good question… Generally, I like to have the False Ending be Up: in SUPERBAD, I think this is around the time that our three heroes are reunited, and in romantic comedies it’s often the “I love you” moment before everything goes to hell at the end of Act II. I try not to be TOO dogmatic about it, though — the page 75 moment doesn’t always have to be a ray of hope, much like the end of Act II doesn’t always have to be a horrible bummer. (To use SUPERBAD as an example again, I’d say that’s when the guys reach the party — the story shifts in a new direction, but not necessarily downward — yet.)

    Sometimes I have remind myself that structure is just a tool (albeit an essential one) to help you tell your story — it’s not an end in and of itself. After all, nobody’s ever walked out of a movie (aside from maybe MEMENTO or PULP FICTION) saying, “Man, that movie’s structure was amazing!” As long as your narrative makes the reader/viewer want to know what happens next, then you’re cool…

  3. William Says:

    You’re excluding # 11, Dicking Around. Don’t underestimate the value of wasting time aka procrastination. It can easily be dismissed as frivolous but should not be undervalued. It is an essential part of the writing process.

  4. writerdad303 Says:

    Excellent point, William. In fact, I was thinking about posting about procrastination anyway. I think I’ll give it a shot…

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