A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri's newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
Let me get this out of the way right up front. I don’t know squat about cars. More often than not these days, I’m in a rental. When I return to a valet to retrieve my vehicle and they ask me what kind of car I dropped off, I’m mostly likely to reply “rental” or perhaps “silver,” with a sheepish shrug.
I am not much interested in learning about cars but I do know something about "drive," and it fascinates me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many aspiring writers and mentored a slew of interns eager to become execs, producers, agents, or managers. It’s easy to spot the ones who have what it takes to potentially succeed in this tough business. Real drive comes through in every move that they make.
Click here to read “Wishin’ and Hopin’ vs. Drive Baby, Drive,” the real story of two young men trying to break in. One has relentless drive and determination. The other has wicked smarts and skills.
It takes a great deal of drive to succeed in the film business. But drive without direction is meaningless wandering. You may be driven to succeed as a writer, but where are you directing your energy to effectively propel your career?
This thought led me to the concept of Four Wheel Drive. Again – don’t know diddly – but I recognize a good metaphor when I see one. So I rolled up my sleeves and did a little research. I hope to now have just enough vehicular vocabulary to play this out; including an impressive albeit, loose grasp of torque, differential, and slippage. That is all the brain space I intend to devote to this subject.
Disclaimer: If you any of you car geeks notice that I’ve gotten something wrong, please don’t write to complain. This is about symbolism, not mechanics. Otherwise I’d be writing for Edmunds.
All Aboard The Drivetrain!
While a car engine transforms stored energy into kinetic energy to move things forward, it’s the drivetrain that directs that energy to the wheels. Depending on the vehicle, the power may be split evenly between the front and rear axles – powering all four wheels at once and ensuring that each wheel turns at the same speed. This is called Four-Wheel Drive (4WD). Or the car may have a gizmo called a differential, that splits the power from the transmission between the two axles, plus a differential for each axle that splits the power between right and left wheels. This is referred to as All-Wheel Drive (AWD).
So what the heck does the difference between 4WD and AWD have to do with a successful screenwriting career? You’re riding the drivetrain baby, isn’t that enough? What’s crucial is where you send your energy, to get to where you want to go.
The 4WD Writer
Driving a 4WD vehicle, aka a 4x4, means you get great traction. Sending maximum torque (translation: the twisting force that causes rotation) to all four wheels will get you over some rough terrain. The path to a screenwriting career is definitely a bumpy road. Strap yourself in. Once you’re actually headed down that path, you will still run into rocky routes and slippery slopes aplenty.
As a writer who wants to move forward fast, traction sounds terrific. But each wheel turning at the same speed, has its drawbacks. According to self-professed “car nerd,” Peter Braun, “This is deeply problematic when doing things like turning. You see, for a car to make a turn, the inside wheel has to turn more slowly than the outside wheel, which is covering more ground. If the vehicle can’t do this, the inside wheel loses traction and it spins freely. This, as you might be able to guess, isn’t great for moving forward efficiently.”
As a writer, you need to be prepared to handle the many curves that the industry will throw at you. And you want to move forward effectively. Each wheel doing the same thing, for example, churning out scripts, sounds great, but isn’t actually the fast track to a successful screenwriting career.
Often, aspiring writers devote all of their fuel to churning out material. Saddest of all, many are focused solely on one script, rewriting it countless times in hopes of moving forward. Writing is obviously crucial, but you need to be sending your energy in many directions to reach your goal of becoming a successful screenwriter.
The AWD Writer
AWD enables wheels to spin at different speeds. If there is a loss of traction, it sends power where it is most needed – depending on which tire has the best grip at any given moment. This gives AWD an advantage in acceleration. Typical AWD systems work well on all surfaces, with good control under all road conditions. They have superior handling – the ability to grip the road while taking a curve at high speeds – leading to AWD race cars dominating the international pro racing scene until they were banned.
Fast acceleration and sporty handling of the twists and turns of a screenwriting career seems appealing. But the real advantage to the AWD concept in writing is that your four wheels can be doing different things at the same time. That’s the key to really getting somewhere.
It’s not enough to focus strictly on getting up the rocky mountainside. While you must direct your energy to writing, you also need to send power to other essential aspects of your screenwriting career at the same time. Craft, ideas, and the marketplace are three vital areas where you must also constantly be directing your energy to advance as a screenwriter.
Never stop learning. No matter how much you have studied screenwriting, there’s always more to learn. The art and craft of storytelling for the screen requires many and varied skills and abilities. Mastery takes a long time. Even if you have reached that lofty level, you can still become more adept.
Focus on improving what I call areas of “less strengthiness.” Be it dialogue, description, characterization or structure; virtually everyone can identify an element of screenwriting that they find challenging. Read books, take advantage of the plethora of seminars out there, and consult experts for their opinions to gauge your progress.
Keep reading scripts! Great scripts are talented writers showing you how to paint a masterpiece. Good scripts point out how minor flaws can have a big impact and prevent a script from reaching the next level. Even poorly executed screenplays provide a cautionary tale: A road map of what can go wrong when the essential elements of screenwriting fail to work effectively.
Always be looking. Remember Drivers’ Ed? They taught us to constantly shift our gaze – from the view through the windshield to the rearview mirror and the side view mirrors. Always be on the lookout for that next great idea. When you make this key mind-shift, every dream you wake from, every piece of art that inspires you, even a random snatch of conversation – can provoke endless possibilities. “Is this an idea for a movie?” constantly echoes in your head.
There’s rocket fuel in a compelling concept that can grab industry attention. The more ideas you generate, the greater your chances of crossing paths with the right idea for you to write next.
Know where you’re headed. Aspiring writers often think that their destination is a completed screenplay, but “FADE OUT” is just the beginning. You should be aiming for a screenwriting career.
You can have a stack o’ completed scripts, but you won’t be going anywhere anytime soon if you don’t know how to bring them to market. To become a professional writer, you must constantly educate yourself on the marketplace and marketing.
What is selling? What are their stories and genres? Who are the players? Who is doing the selling? Who is attached to the material that sells? Who is buying? What’s being greenlit? What’s successful and compelling at the box office?
Turn a blind eye to the market for your product and you lack the vehicle necessary to get where you want to be. You need the vision for where you are headed along with the skills and knowledge to get you there.
By marketing, I’m not talking billboards and trailers. You need to become skilled at marketing both your story and yourself. Develop pitching and querying skills, build industry relationships – and learn how to act like a professional when the opportunity arises to interact with industry pros.
Nurture relationships no matter where you are living. In Hollywood, “who you know” fuels all our careers. Yes, it helps to be in LA, but with the Internet, the world, as Thomas Friedman says, is truly flat. Stop whining and start networking.
Of the handful of writers currently doing the best job of building a true, working relationship with me; developing an open door now, and for a long way down the road, one is in Canada and another is in Australia. No excuses.
Build a two-way street. Create opportunities, but also educate yourself on how to take advantage of them without out taking advantage. A lovely man once charmed a meeting out of me while visiting LA by virtue of being from my small hometown. Sadly, he was so unclear on how to conduct himself like an industry professional, that he totally blew the opportunity to build a relationship, pitch his material or gain some insight from our time together.
To reach a career in screenwriting, you need to keep all four wheels spinning. Thanks to AWD, they don’t all have to be going at the same speed at the same time, but they better be spinning! All the time!
But I’m An ORV Writer!
Yes, I know some of you like to think of yourselves as an Off-Road Vehicle type of writer. You want to drive on gravel surfaces, mountainous terrain, or desert sands. Or to heck with roads at all – you will blaze your own path! Sounds glamorous, romantic, and reckless, as you power forward with no clear destination in mind, just the desire to drive. Navigation is ignored.
Despite literally groovy, giant tires and the potential thrill of motorsports, ORVs are dangerous. Built with higher ground clearance for rough and low traction surfaces means that they have a higher center of gravity that increases the risk of a rollover.
When you take a sharp curve in your ORV, or even your rugged SUV or monster pickup, the vehicle's mass resists. It’s hell bent on moving forward – just like you ORV-writers.
Now you are no longer doing the driving as much as you are being driven. The laws of physics, according to Sir Isaac Newton, have taken over. Centrifugal force draws the body of the car away from the center of the curve.
At the same time, the friction from the tires on the road pulls them laterally toward the inside of the turn. This causes the bottom of the vehicle to move out from under it, creating an ideal rollover condition. According to the laws of motion, this is known as centripetal force. Newton described it as "a force by which bodies are drawn or impelled, or in any way tend, towards a point as to a centre."
In writing terms, this means you are so consumed with the thrill of unchartered terrain that you have lost contact with the reality of the road, You are being pulled every which way and are utterly out of control.
ORV-style writers revel in roughing it while not sticking to an established road – be it the conventions of cinematic structure or the clear path created by outlines. This is not the route to success but a self-indulgent and dangerous course. Who knows where you will end up? It’s a wild ride until, as your mother used to say, “Someone pokes an eye out!”
So you’re using AWD, and you’re really cruising. Ah! Not so fast. There are still potential pitfalls. To get the traction necessary for moving forward, all four wheels need to be able to grip the ground without slipping. According to Robert Lamb of How Stuff Works, slippage can occur on ice, wet roads, or even on dry ones if you floor the vehicle at a standstill:
But what if only one wheel is on ice or in the mud? You wind up with one wheel spinning freely over the slippery substance, while the other wheel is reduced to the same torque. In other words, you'll have one wheel spinning in the mud and one wheel not rotating at all.
Lamb recommends adding a limited-slip differential. “When one powered tire slips, the LSD transfers more torque to the non-slipping wheel. As you might imagine, this makes all the difference between escaping a ditch and having to get out and push.”
In screenwriting, diverting all your focus to just one area and, instead of getting ahead, you may find yourself getting stuck. One wheel whirls frantically, while another goes nowhere. Even if you’ve made great progress on one front – “You got representation – yay!” you have to keep sending power to all four wheels to continue making progress.
The Long and Torque Of It
A career in screenwriting is a long, winding – and bumpy road. On your journey, keep all the wheels spinning. Applying maximum torque – all your energy – to just one wheel is no way to win the race.
You need to continually supply torque, maintain traction, keep yourself fueled up and engage smooth handling skills. You definitely don’t want to have to get out and push.
Direct your energy to creating material, building craft and honing storytelling ability, generating new ideas and studying the marketplace while preparing to market yourself. You can’t put the brakes on one and truly expect to go places.
This is how the race is won.
NB: According to Wikipedia, “Even though in the general context, the term "four-wheel drive" usually refers to an ability that a vehicle may have, it is also used to designate the entire vehicle itself. In Australia, vehicles without significant off-road abilities are often referred to as All-Wheel Drives (AWD) or SUVs, while those with off-road abilities are referred to as "four-wheel drives". This term is sometimes also used in North America, somewhat interchangeably for SUVs and pickup trucks and is sometimes mistakenly applied to two-wheel-drive variants of these vehicles.”
And yes, I am choosing to ignore the concept of Individual Wheel Drive of electric vehicles including the Mars Rover. Unless someone would like to give me a Tesla. Elon?
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