Conventional wisdom says, “Write what you know.” But in my humble opinion, this statement is incomplete. A better version could be expressed as, “Write what you have explored extensively.” Because through sufficient exploration, a perceptive screenwriter will uncover certain details that give a screenplay an authentic look and feel. Such details make characters, their dialogue, and the world they live in appear genuine, believable and real to the reader. Those rare screenplays – packed with such details – are frequently the ones that sell, get produced, and become great films.
Of course, exploration for today’s aspiring screenwriter should not be limited to thinking merely about a current project. Serious attention must be paid to learning as much as possible about the craft and business of screenwriting if success is to be achieved at the professional level.
When I was an aspiring screenwriter, I realized how much I needed to learn. So, I started my own extensive exploration by reading hundreds and hundreds of screenplays. I got heavily involved in the Scriptwriters Network and Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. This led to me interviewing hundreds of film and television working professionals, including writers, producers, studio and network development executives, directors, actors, assistants, agents and managers. I became a story analyst at Fred Roos Productions, producer for Francis Coppola and Sofia Coppola. Through these varied experiences, I began to understand how all those details of Hollywood’s intricate jigsaw puzzle fit together.
Today, I see how my Hollywood journey of exploration has taken me full circle. As a script consultant, I often speak on panels about the craft and business of screenwriting. Many in Hollywood are passionate about different causes. My passion is to help other writers to raise their professional standards and for them to make tangible progress in their screenwriting careers.
I recall one of my past interviews that relates directly to “exploration of details.” Several years ago, I was fortunate to interview both Steven Zaillian and Joe Mantegna during the 10th anniversary screening of the film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. I would strongly advise anyone serious about screenwriting to study the works of Steven Zaillian, regarded by many as one of Hollywood’s most talented writers. Zaillian won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the Steven Spielberg-directed masterpiece, Schindler’s List. John Travolta starred in the film, A Civil Action, written and directed by Zaillian. If you haven’t read Zaillian’s screenplay, Searching for Bobby Fischer, then you really should. The entire script is a series of those tiny “details” that form one of the best screenplays ever written. In fact, Emmy®-nominated actor Joe Mantegna said, “If I had to list three of the best scripts I’ve read in my life, [Searching for Bobby Fischer] certainly would be one of them.”
During the interview, Steven Zaillian explained how the script Searching for Bobby Fischer was created. “It was exploration,” he stated. “You can hopefully learn and find authenticity in the process of actually developing the story.” Zaillian didn’t know anything about chess when he first received the novel Searching for Bobby Fischer from producer Scott Rudin. But he became fascinated with the chess world, and the idea of exploring the relationship between fathers and sons, and what makes a good parent. As he explained, “The most important thing that gets me through the process [of writing the script] is having a belief or feeling of what the story is about. For me, the mechanical process of developing plot is to start with that core idea, then it gets a little more specific as I break things into action and Acts. Then I begin developing the characters. Things get more and more detailed as I go through the story. My first draft will capture 90% of those details.” Like many professional writers, Steven Zaillian does TONS of research before writing that first draft. The true art comes from determining which details to include that best tell the story. In the case of Searching for Bobby Fischer, those selected details produced pure magic.
Let’s examine one scene and learn from Steven Zaillian’s brilliant use of details. Detail #1, The father doesn’t want to hurt his son’s feelings. Detail #2, Reversal – The son doesn’t want to hurt his Daddy’s feelings. Detail #3, Another Reversal - phone books are removed from a chair.
INT. KITCHEN - MOMENTS LATER - DAY Putting on his own coat, Fred watches his wife Bonnie at the stove pouring herself a cup of instant coffee, all but ignoring him. FRED Yeah, I know, I should've let him win one. I gave him every opportunity. BONNIE He wasn't trying to win. FRED Come on, Bonnie. BONNIE What? It doesn't matter. FRED No, say what you mean. BONNIE You don't get it. He doesn't want to beat his daddy. Fred has to laugh, but the look on her face says it's true. He sighs and takes off his coat. INT. LIVING ROOM - MOMENTS LATER - DAY Josh emerges from his bedroom wearing a coat and cap, ready to go out. His father's lining up the chessmen again. FRED One more, just for fun. Josh checks with his mom with a glance. BONNIE It's just a game, Josh. It's okay to beat him, you won't hurt his feelings. Fred rolls his eyes. Josh sighs and approaches the table. He lifts the heavy phone books off the chair and places them on the floor. He sits down, lower now, at the same level as the chessmen, and peers through them intently. Fred glances across at his wife, a little taken aback by the position his son has assumed. Ominously, she raises an eyebrow.
Wow, what writing. But the filmed version is even stronger. Instead of Josh merely “placing” the heavy phone books on the floor, the child actor deliberately tosses the heavy books from the chair, causing them to crash with a THUD onto the hardwood floor. Actor Joe Mantegna’s brief reaction shot is priceless. The father had lovingly placed the phone books on the chair so his son could see better while sitting on them. But now, it’s the father’s turn to see reality; he is about to be destroyed over the chessboard by his seven-year-old son.
With just a few well placed detailed lines of dialogue and action, Steve Zaillian demonstrates powerful mastery on the page. Such writing should be the goal of every screenwriter. The right details will make YOUR screenplay stand out from the thousands of scripts that get submitted to Hollywood each year.
I’d like to suggest a related exercise. Think of your favorite movie. Then, see if you can locate the screenplay for this film. (It’s most likely available for free online somewhere.) As you go through the script, page by page, remember those “details” that made you love the story. Then notice how the writer makes those details come alive on the page. When you return to working on your current screenplay, you might be inspired to keep digging for undiscovered details that could still be added to your story. Those tiniest of details can sometimes create the most compelling screenplays.
Finally, please let me know if you found this article helpful. I welcome topic requests for future articles as well. Happy rewriting!