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Breaking & Entering: Do You Have the Guts for a Screenwriting Career?

Why do we go to the movie theatre? It’s not for big stars, spectacular effects or to keep up with water cooler conversations. We go to have a communal, visceral experience. Our desire for this is strong enough to make us leave our comfy couches, pay for parking and ignore exorbitant markups on popcorn and soda. As a screenwriter, it’s your job to create a story which delivers on that promise when the lights dim.

the movie-going experience

Visceral is defined as relating to deep, inward feelings rather than the intellect. Characterized by intuition or instinct. It is emotional, deep-rooted, primal. “You feel it in your gut.”

That’s what makes movie-going anexperience.

That’s what audiences want: to feel it in their gut. And what better way than the immersive environs of a movie theatre? A pitch-dark room. Sound envelopes us, bright images before our eyes captivate us, and we are immersed in the emotion of those around us sharing the identical experience.

Movies pack more punch when viewed with a crowd. Comedies provoke more intense laughter, as the humor hits and then builds. Scary films are more frightening when a room full of people gasp at the same instant.

We are hard-wired for that which is visceral. What’s your earliest memory? A fleeting glimpse of a teddy bear in your crib? Not likely. Chances are it’s an event that you recall from childhood; although probably not sitting in your highchair eating applesauce.

Our first memories are most often formed around moments that mattered because of the strong emotions associated with them. You were excited, scared, awed, frustrated, amazed, distressed. You felt it in your gut. That’s why this early memory might even be a story you tell to this day. Visceral experience sticks with us. Visceral stories are worth retelling.

When I was little, I saw the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my younger brothers. How this was considered children’s fare – with the exception of Dick Van Dyke and a flying car – is baffling to me because this movie is scary. Set in a land where children are outlawed, the villain is the evil Child Catcher; equipped with a long nose for sniffing out children, along with a net and cage for capturing them. When Dick and his love interest leave in search of food for the hungry children, they warn them to remain hidden.

The Child Catcher

From a screenplay by Roald Dahl, and based on Ian Fleming’s novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was edgy enough to inspire an entire album by Marilyn Manson.

It’s then, when they are most vulnerable, that the Child Catcher comes searching. He seeks to lure them out with a haunting, sing-song refrain, “Here we are children, come and get your lollipops, lollipops, come along my little ones.” The moment the children creep out of hiding they will be trapped in the Child Catcher’s net, forced into a circus-like wagon which masks a lion’s cage, and hauled off to prison. Yet the temptation is too great.

As the Child Catcher closed in on the little girl and boy, my brothers screamed out, “Look out, look out, he’s behind you!” They were too young to know that you don’t shout at the screen in a movie theatre. They were drawn in, invested in the fate of the children, and deeply engrossed in the moment. They were having a visceral experience.

I love telling this story from my childhood. To this day, I crave the intensity of being swept up on an emotional roller-coaster ride when watching a movie. I want the greater fear of embarrassing myself in front of my date to be the only thing that prevents me from shouting at the screen.

To have the guts for screenwriting means tapping into your own gut at every juncture of the process if you want to succeed.

Does your idea have what it takes to be a movie?

I teach screenwriters how to evaluate ideas for their potential as films. “Is it visceral?” is among my top litmus tests.

Visceral stories deal with primal needs – survival, revenge, lust, love, greed and power – that speak to us all. The heros have clear goals – surviving the slums and beating the odds to reunite with a lost love; overcoming all obstacles, external and internal, to find their friend and get him home in time for his wedding; overcoming a debilitating stammer to gain the confidence to lead a nation. There are tangible stakes. Without something meaningful to be gained or lost, who cares?

Visceral ideas offer something new or bring a fresh spin to a familiar tale. Humans have been telling stories since we were cavemen. Now we are exposed to story before we are even old enough to turn the pages of a picture book. We grow up bombarded with story from every direction by our media-hungry society. We are so familiar with story that something new never fails to delight and enthrall. Our brains love twists, surprises, and suspense – the thrilling sensation of truly being unable to predict what will happen next. That sets the bar pretty high.

Comedies had better be thigh-slappingly funny, capers profoundly clever, horror should cause our hearts to literally pound, mystery packed with astonishing reveals, thrillers with twists so staggering that they truly bring us to the edge our seats.

Halfway, so-so or ho-hum simply isn’t enough for a truly engaging, visceral experience. Try flipping the genre, reconceiving the hero, rethinking the conflict.

If your idea still fails the visceral test, STOP. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go back to your idea file. When you stop thinking about this story, the twist that makes it all work may very well come to you.


We crave the escape of laughter, the release of tears, the vicarious confrontation of our secret fears, the catharsis of tragedy. We want to be moved. Nothing less will do.

Are you passionate about telling this story?

You had better be. You will spend years – yes, years – on this idea, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, pitching, querying, struggling to reach industry pros. Expect to flail, fail and lose. Expect to be rejected, ignored and abused.

It takes guts to keep pushing on.

Your passion alone is not enough. Nor is the praise of your mother, the approval of your writers’ group or the compliments of coverage. You must search for the proverbial needle in the haystack – people in the industry who connect with your story on a gut level and are inspired by it. They become its ardent champions, dedicating their time, energy, and talent to bringing your story to the screen.

Mountain climber

Should you succeed in getting others on board, every person will add their own two cents, from managers to moviestars. More rewriting awaits you, but now with an onslaught of input that must be considered, respected and incorporated while you strive to remain true to your original vision.

Nothing short of true passion can fuel the determination required to summit the Everest of a journey from conceiving an idea through to your ultimate destination of seeing your movie up on the big screen.

Are you brave enough to show us who you really are?

This doesn’t mean telling us a highly personal story that actually happened to you. It’s about conveying what you understand from your life experience about the human experience that speaks to a wide audience.

It’s about what really matters according to you.

The heart of the story is its theme – the message of the movie that you want to convey about what you think is important in life. Themes are universal truths. If you’re out to tell a story, it had better have meaning. Without something to say, you’ll never get an audience to listen.

By its very nature, themes are personal. Be prepared to dig deep. If you don’t believe your own message, there’s no courage in your convictions; no heart to your story. If you can’t, don’t, or won’t connect with your own feelings, your experiences – both happy and horrible – and your point of view as it has been shaped by your life, you cannot connect with readers or with an audience.

I spend a lot of time talking theme with writers. It is the keyhole through which all creative decisions must pass. It is the unifying idea. It is the hub from which all spokes must spring to make your wheel work. As a teacher, it’s my job to ensure that everyone in the room gets the concept, which inspires and impels me to discover different ways to explain an abstract notion until everyone’s eyes light up.

To help my students identify the philosophy of life most resonant for them, I suggest that if they were about to send their child out into the world with just one, solitary piece of advice, what would they say? Love is more important than money? Fight for what is right? Never give up on your dreams?

As this concept strikes a chord, I see not only their “ah-ha” moment on my students' faces, but often tears welling up in their eyes. They’ve found the message that holds the most meaning for them.

They feel it in their gut.

Theme is personal. Theme is powerful. Theme is visceral. Even raunchy R-rated comedies – the popular, successful, and franchise-launching ones – have a meaningful message lurking beneath the surface.

Are you prepared to pour it all out on the page?

Your task as a screenwriter is to create a blueprint for a film that is visceral, cinematic, and experiential. Once you have an idea for a movie, examine every possible direction your story could go in at every plot point. Wring every opportunity for comedy and every ounce of drama from your premise. Come up with as many options as you can, and then choose the most effective – the funniest, the scariest, the most poignant, the truly original.

You must get your three-dimensional movie in your head onto the page using words alone. Each and every word counts. Search for words that are rich, evocative, and in sync with the tone of your story. Use the least amount of words to create the fullest picture in the mind of the reader. Work on this until you are drained. Take a break. Then take another pass.

Craft each moment so that they all work together to deliver on the promise of the premise. Create solid scenes that add up to strong sequences which work together to take us on a satisfying journey.

Each line of description, every sentence your characters utter, each moment of action, every single scene should be in your screenplay because it lives up to your premise, supports your theme and contributes to both advancing the story and furthering the arc of the hero. Otherwise it is unnecessary.

What does your gut tell you? If you have to work to justify keeping something in your script, dump it.

Many rereads in, your own work should continue to move you. Still make you chuckle or weep. If it doesn’t, then you haven’t left it all out on the field. You will have failed the idea, disappointed the reader, and lost the potential audience.

roller coaster ride

Should you lure us into the theatre, now you must deliver on the promise of the premise, the covenant between storyteller and moviegoer that, when the lights come up, they won’t walk out feeling disappointed, cheated, or worse – having felt nothing at all.

Screenwriting requires a great deal of guts. Learning how to write a screenplay is a formidable undertaking. Facing a blank page is painfully scary. But those are merely the first steps of what it takes to get to that moment when the theatre lights go down, popcorn bags cease their rustling, and we the audience are drawn into the world of your creation and riveted by your storytelling.

I wish you persistence. I wish you courage. I wish you heart. I wish you guts.

After I finished writing the first draft of this column, I took a hot shower, had something to eat, then watched a movie that made me cry throughout every moment of the end credits. Afterwards, I felt uplifted by the thought that someone created a story that engrossed me, that that spoke to me, that moved me. That’s your job. Go do it. Please.

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