Is there anything new under the sun about how to write a screenplay? Let there be light! Barri Evins reviews Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down.
More than 2000 years ago Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is no new thing under the sun.”
Centuries later, that phrase is most often attributed to storytelling. As in:
All the good stories that exist in the world have already been told.
Under the current deluge, nay, explosion of movie remakes, sequels, prequels, and reboots, (Reboots? Now that seems to be a truly new phrase, coined to deal with this onslaught of storytelling rehashed.) what more proof could we need?
I do not believe that there are no new stories to tell, per se.
I believe each storyteller has the potential to bring something fresh and distinctive to a story that has been told time and again. Their characters, their plot twists, their retelling of an old story but in a new genre. I think that is, essentially, the point of storytelling: Sharing your unique perspective on the world with the world.
I have expounded upon the power of the element of surprise in creating compelling stories. The combination of a beloved familiar tale with a delicious new element or a fresh spin is irresistible. It is possibly the most powerful way to draw us to a story. Watch Something Old, Something New for more on this.
Therefore, who cares if there are no new stories?
Given that philosophers, teachers, gurus, working writers and even lowly columnists such as myself have been expounding on how to write a screenplay for centuries, today’s question is:
Is there anything new under the sun when it comes to how to write a screenplay?
Yes, dear screenwriter, indeed it appears there is.
When I saw a recent post in my Facebook feed from Michael Wiese Productions (famed champion of books devoted to filmmaking and screenwriting) about a new title, my standard reaction would be to smile and keep scrolling. Cool cover, but I have neither the time nor inclination to read something on screenwriting when I have so very many scripts to read and so very much to write about writing for writers.
But I have a special connection to Bulletproof: Writing Scripts that Don't Get Shot Downby successful screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman.
I am an unabashed fangirl of these gents. I loved their movie, The Family Man, starring Nic Cage and Téa Leoni. While it came to me as a serendipitous accident, I now often reference this film when teaching seminars and while consulting with writers as a brilliant example of structure. (If that piqued your interest, read the whole wonderful, mystical connection story herelater, because this is supposed to be a book review, but damn there is a series of good anecdotes behind this.)
I reposted to the Big Ideas Facebook page with the cover image from The Family Man, knowing that writers and clients who have worked with me would totally get the connection.
As a result, I wound up connecting with the gentlemen referred to colloquially as “The Davids.” And before you know it, I had an early copy of the book in my hot little hands.
Please believe me when I say I had no expectation of discovering something truly “new.” I devoured Egri in college. I took screenwriting courses with Lew Hunter and studied with Michael Hague. I questioned Syd and broke bread with Blake. I cannot express the volumes I learned from my first development executive job with the talented writing team of Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon. If we were playing the drinking game, Never Have I Ever: Story Edition©, I will win. I could have added a dozen things here, but it is already a long-winded way to say: This ain’t my first rodeo.
I cracked open the cover with little anticipation of finding anything that would truly excite me. Something new to add to the lengthy conversation. Not much hope of finding fresh insight into the process. Not convinced that screenwriters would really benefit from reading – eye roll – yet another book on screenwriting.
Imagine my delight when realized I was wrong!
Bulletproof is about “getting to yes in a town where everyone – agents, producers, executives, even script readers – is predisposed to saying no.” If I had to sum up the entire book in one sentence, well, I am gonna steal one of theirs:
That’s what this book, and the bulletproof approach is about – scrutinizing every choice from the perspective of story and character and through the lens of the folks who will need to say “YES” and come aboard to turn your vision into a reality.
Aww guys, you had me at Page xvi. As Sally so famously said to Harry, "Yes, yes, YES!"
As “The Davids” underscore numerous times, this is not a formula; it’s a method that has worked for them. Pick and choose. Mine these gems and steal what works for you.
When they fully grasped these concepts and developed this distinctive approach to cracking and developing stories their work improved – and it became marketable. They were still telling stories they loved but had figured out how to elevate them. They were writing for an audience. They were writing for the buyer. They began hearing, “Yes.”
Only then were they were able to progress from long-struggling, aspiring writers, to having a good writing sample, to being represented, to taking meetings, to a spec sale, and on to a lengthy and successful career in screenwriting and television.
How to Write A Screenplay: Step By Step
While you absolutely need to read Syd and Blake, possibly McKee (if you can stomach the somewhat bombastic style and get to the brilliant stuff), and many others who have contributed to the ethos of how to write a screenplay, Never Have I Ever found so much utterly practical advice and a thoroughly comprehensive screenwriting guide plus staggeringly innovative techniques as that offered by Messieurs Diamond and Weissman in one slim volume.
In fact, as I was reading, I started post-it-ing and then scrawling notes in the margins, underlining, adding exclamation points, check marks, smileys and many comments that I wanted to share with The Davids when we sat down for an interview. (Yes, that’s what comes next, kiddos. Possibly all part of my nefarious plot… or the cosmos conspiring.)
The Davids take you through the hard work quite literally from start to finish.
For Pete’s sake, these guys tell you how to handle sluglines – right at the point in the process when you need that info. How to polish! How to cut!
Jeez. I’m just going to drop their table of contents right here. Step right up, as seeing is believing.
What I Liked Most: Not just what to do, but why to do it, how to do it and how to tell if you have succeeded. Yes!
How to Write A Screenplay: Bulletproof Process
Deep thinking has gone into this method. It requires deep thinking to execute it. As well it should. That is the only way to get a deep screenplay. One that fires on all possible cylinders.
I would bet that these guys think of themselves as writers but the bulletproof process convinces me that they are also skilled teachers. This is highly effective teaching.
Here are two of my favorite Bulletproof techniques:
For my money, “Building Bulletproof Characters” may be the truly revelatory secret sauce here. It goes beyond what many have said about creating heroes – although the chapter offers some excellent dos and don’ts – to dig into every character that populates the world. The purpose is so that each character you choose to put in your story represents a differing position on the central debate of the story – their own point of view on the issue the theme illuminates. That means in every scene they are in, the character has their own drive and their own point of view. This makes scenes dynamic.
According to Diamond and Weissman, “creating characters with a clear and defined perspective” provides a “solid foundation for your screenplay.” Keep digging! They are aiming for bulletproof movies. Rich roles that actors will yearn to play. Before they even outline, they list all the primary and secondary characters:
Then we go down that list, one by one, viewing the story we’re telling through the eyes of each and every character. We go through all three acts, every story turn and escalation, from the perspective of every character in our movie, writing down their experience of the story as it happens.
The Davids have much more to say about how they do this, including a brilliant example, and encourage you to steal their method. Read the book!
But here is what I will tell you. I’ve admitted that I use the The Family Man to help teach structure. That means I’ve watched it many, many times. Possibly more than any other film, except perhaps an award-winning Spanish film that I was trying to package to get an American remake off the ground, I screened it for enough A-Listers that my Spanish improved, and I no longer had to read the subtitles.
Here’s what happens when you watch any really rich movie many, many times: You no longer need the subtitles, literally or metaphorically. That’s the surface stuff and the big picture of the narrative. This frees your mind up to notice the little things that make a good story great. To take in the full frame. These nuances impact you whether or not you are consciously aware of them. As with a good film score, they should support and enhance, not stand out.
I have watched The Family Man (lotsa ways to watch here) enough times to notice the background. Actors in supporting roles in an important scene react to what is going on with the main characters. The expression on their face – in this case envy – makes the scene more dynamic, adds yet another layer, and reflects their point of view on the theme.
Watch the scene:
What I Liked Most: The Davids articulate how to create a world in which every single character has a point of view, why it makes narrative dynamic, and using this to enrich the theme.
Bulletproof Set Pieces
In all you have read and learned about screenwriting, did you gain an understanding of Set Pieces? I have had them come up all the time IRL; in meetings with writers and in studio notes, often referred to as Trailer Moments. This is crucial in movies, but Never Have I Ever read about this in depth for screenwriting.
Diamond and Weissman’s approach is clear, crisp and comprehensive:
- What Set Pieces are.
- Why you need them.
- Why they work.
- How they help sell your script.
- How to teach yourself by watching movies.
- Pointers on crafting Set Pieces.
- Examples from films you know and love.
- An anecdote that shows how what The Davids learned while working in the industry that helped them truly understand Set Pieces.
- How to integrate them into the story.
- Script pages from a set piece they loved from a script they wrote that sold but has not been made, and is hilarious. Found in the appendix.
And, importantly, something Never Have I Ever seen in the how-tos:
- What not to do.
In a mere seven pages, plus an addendum with script pages, they lay out everything you need to know to use this crucial element to elevate your spec and make it bulletproof.
Do Set Pieces Really Make Scripts Bulletproof? Yes. Real world industry experience proves it. When I was running Debra Hill’s production company, in 1998, I was sent a Diamond and Weissman writing sample by their agent. It garnered enough praise from me to merit a “consider” but not a meeting with me. They had not gotten a “YES.” Why? Hint: According to their book, they did not truly master Set Pieces until 2005! Shh: I haven’t told them yet. I’m saving it for our interview. But, you can find the inside scoop here.
How to Write A Screenplay: Bulletproof Nuggets of Wisdom
There is little better than a complex concept succinctly expressed. Bulletproof is rife with these Nuggets of Wisdom:
- A bulletproof idea is one that presents its reader with a clear path to production.
- Start thinking more and typing less.
- The reader’s eye is moving from the slugline to the action to the dialogue. You do not want to disrupt that momentum.
- Pacing is more important than page count.
- A great line does not justify an otherwise unnecessary scene.
What I Liked Most: The on point pointers are spot on.
How to Write A Screenplay: Is this book for me?
For those just beginning screenwriting:
Never Have I Ever seen so many frequently asked questions about how to write a screenplay answered in one place. A ton of valuable information, that is smarter, more informative, and a far more articulate and entertaining than advice one often finds in online writing groups in response to: “Help! I’m just starting. Can you tell me how to write a screenplay?” Go forth and learn.
For those widely read, well educated, and with a stack o’ scripts under their belt:
There are new things here on how to write a screenplay: Specifically, how to write a movie that is bulletproof. Methods to deepen your execution, elevate your storytelling, improve your chances to get noticed, get a foot in the door and launch your career. I guarantee you will find some “Never Have I Ever” moments of your own.
For the advanced, on-the-precipice writer:
This may be the push you need to get to the long stream of “YESES” required to break in. Elevating your ideas and your execution from “solid screenplays” to bulletproof movies that get you a “yes” to representation, to getting in the room and to getting paid. This is never quick and easy. Diamond and Weissman share their hard-fought lessons, learned over five years of blood and sweat and lots of screenplay writing until their first break. They forged a path and are handing you the roadmap, if you’re ready to take it to heart, and put in the time and effort to do your story’s heavy lifting to get to yes, yes, YES.
For me, personally, it was: “Yes, I have so said that same thing! Well, maybe not quite as eloquently. Perhaps not with such economy of words. Whoa, awesome real-life example! Never Have I Ever had such a deep and comprehensive understanding of the role supporting characters play in dynamic scenes and supporting theme. And I write about that! You two Davids put into words what draws me to your work! And to rich story. This is an essential element of truly elevated, professional writing.”
Yes, to be honest, I was a little bit envious that as professional wordsmiths their writing was so crisp and entertaining. Their metaphors so inventive and apt. Their sheer ability to keep me engaged and reading long past my bedtime with wit and wisdom. Along the way, much to my surprise, I found there was indeed something new under the sun.
NOTE: Never Have I Ever written a book review. I don’t plan on doing another one. I've followed a pretty strict policy of not plugging things screenwriters should buy over the course of my career as a columnist and consultant. I don’t have ads on my website or blog, nor do I promote specific contests or services. But, yes, this was personal for me.
Editor's Note: The Davids are doing a book signing on Tuesday. If you're in the West Hollywood area, check it out.
Book Soup, Tuesday, May 21, 2019 - 7:00pm
8818 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Get more tips from Barri Evins with her on-demand webinar
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