Skip to main content

INTERVIEW: C. Robert Cargill, Writer of Doctor Strange and Sinister

Bryan Young interviews C. Robert Cargill, writer of Doctor Strange and Sinister, discussing collaboration, tips for consistently getting words on the page, and elevating your stories.

Bryan Young interviews C. Robert Cargill, writer of Doctor Strange and Sinister, discussing collaboration, tips for consistently getting words on the page, and elevating your stories.

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

Bryan Young interviews C. Robert Cargill, writer of 'Doctor Strange' and 'Sinister', discussing collaboration, tips for consistently getting words on the page, and elevating your stories.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 20: Writer C. Robert Cargill attends The Los Angeles World Premiere of Marvel Studios "Doctor Strange in Hollywood, CA on Oct. 20th, 2016. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

C. Robert Cargill began his journey into screenwriting a long time ago, as both a dude in a video store and one of the guys reviewing films on the internet. Today, as a writer, he has movies like Sinister and Doctor Strange under his belt. He spoke with Script about his journey and his advice for screenwriters.

Script: Could you just start by telling people about your journey to being a screenwriter? Because you worked in a field that was not screenwriting, but adjacent to that sort of thing for quite a while…

C. Robert Cargill: Several actually. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time developing and doing a number of things. My first semi-professional writing job was as an editor of a pro-diversity literary magazine in San Antonio in the '90s. From there, I moved on and started as a film critic, Ain't It Cool News, and while I was doing that, I was also working in a video store, so movies were pretty much my life for a very long time. Then, towards the end of the 2000s, I started seeing what was happening to the internet, and I realized that there probably weren't going to be any good jobs for me.

In 2006, I was able to quit my day job, and I was making a good middle-class income as a film critic, and it was great. I mean, I was working at four different places to do it. I was working sometimes 60 hours a week, but I loved it, and it was a wonderful experience. But I realized with the rise of social media, and the way... What I call "plate journalism" kind of evolved, in which the whole idea of somebody has worked to break a story, and then everybody else copies and pastes that story in, and then adds a paragraph of their own and repurposes it. I realized it was essentially going to become an Internet run by interns, so I needed to find a way out. I decided I was going to become a novelist.

I sat down to write my first book, called Dreams and Shadows. I started that in 2008, and finally finished it in 2010 just writing on nights and weekends. I had developed a friendship with Scott Derrickson [Director of Doctor Strange], and he reached out to me over the years to thank me for turning him on to various films. I have a very particular, different view on film than a lot of other people do that appealed to a certain niche audience, who also saw films in the same way I did, which is why it was so successful. I had this devoted audience. It's like, "This guy gets movies the way I get movies."

Scott would write me and thank me for turning him on to these movies. He'd read the negative reviews and go, "No, but I always agree with this guy, and this guy says it's good, so I'm gonna go see it." It would blow his mind, and he'd be like, "Oh my God, this is great!" So, he started writing me. We started writing back and forth and became friends over the years. When he found out I was working on a book he's like, "I wanna read it, you gotta let me read it." And so, I let him read it, and he fell in love with it, and gave me some notes, and that helped sharpen up the book. He's like... "I wanna help you get this published." And I'm like, "Cool!"

While that was in the midst of happening, I was in Vegas with some friends, it was my first time in Vegas, and Scott was in Vegas at the exact same time for a poker tournament. We saw on Twitter that we were both there, and he's like, "Hey we need to get together and have drinks."

Networking Tips: Building a Network Online and Off

We get together at the Mandalay Bay, pounding back drinks, and I'm five white Russians in when he goes, "Hey, I'm pitching around this project. There are these two producers, they've got this new model for making movies, and if I just bring them a good idea, they'll give me a million dollars to make that movie, no strings attached, and I get final cut. And so I'm pitching this idea. Can I get your professional opinion on it?" And I said, "Yeah, absolutely." He pitched me this idea that was great. I gave him my notes and said, "Hey, can I get your professional opinion on something? I've had this horror movie rattling around in my head for five years. Can I pitch you?"

And he goes, "Yeah, yeah, everybody pitches me once, this is your one-time. Pitch me." I pitched him Sinister, and he said, "Oh my God, I wanna make that movie, and these guys want this movie. This is the movie these guys are looking for. I know exactly who's doing this. Alright, look, I want you to go home. When you get home from Vegas I want you to write a 3 to 5-page treatment, register with a WGA, and I'll take it out."

The next day I'm walking through the hotel casino, and Scott's playing there. He's like, “I’m sitting out this hand, and I'm about to jump back in, but I want you to remember when you get home from Vegas, I want you to write a 3 to 5-page treatment, register with the WGA, and I'll take it out." Great, fantastic. This guy really liked the idea. The next day, I'm at home, I've been home for 20 minutes, I'm in bed, I'm passing out, and the phone rings. My wife comes in and goes, "It's Scott!" And I'm like "Alright, I'll take it."

And he's like, "Hey man, I just want to remind you to write a 3 to 5-page treatment, register with the WGA, and I'll take it out next week." And I was like, okay, this guy is serious. So, I slept for 10 hours, I woke up, wrote a 5-page treatment, and registered it with a WGA. Scott took it out, and a week-and-a-half later, I'm sitting in Jason Blum's office and pitching it to him. He bought it there in the room.

"Every producer who works in Hollywood for more than a couple of years wants two things: They want a movie that is critically well-received, possibly even award-winning, and they want it to be profitable. When it comes down to it, they'll take profitable over good, if they have to, but they want it to be profitable and good."

Scott said, "Ordinarily, I pay to option the idea, but I just lost my writing partner, and I read your book. I know you can write. Do you wanna sit and write this, and then we'll write my other idea, and if it works out, maybe we'll be writing partners. If not we'll shake hands, and we'll have made two movies together." And I said, "That sounds great." Two weeks in, we realized we absolutely loved working together. Our brains just worked in such a complementary fashion, that we made each other better. And he said, "Do you just wanna be my writing partner?

I said sure, and here I am, over eight years later, and we're still working together and making movies.

Bryan Young interviews C. Robert Cargill, writer of 'Doctor Strange' and 'Sinister', discussing collaboration, tips for consistently getting words on the page, and elevating your stories.

Script: How did being a critic inform your screenwriting?

Cargill: Well, there were two components to that. I always wanted to be a professional writer. As a result, I looked at my time in the video stores, and my time as a film critic, as kind of a master class, and as a college course. When I worked in the video store, everybody knew me as the movie guy. I’d have people come into my store, and go, "Hey, is the movie guy here?" "No." "Can you call him? 'cause I have a question."

I would spend a lot of time talking to customers and finding out what they loved about movies, what they hated about movies, and judging the audience. As a film critic, I didn't just judge my experience, I also watched the audiences while I was watching these movies, because most of the Austin critic screenings were open radio screenings. I could see how the audience reacted to it, and then I would talk to the audience afterwards, while I was talking to the other critics.

I was learning what audiences loved about movies and what they hated about movies, and training myself to think about story in the way of writing for that audience. Also informing how critics look at things, and the nature of the different genres of film, how those genres work, how these genres age, how films get talked about, and how films get ignored. I realized that there are these two major audiences, and they are radically different. There are critics, and there are general audiences. Trying to write a movie to satisfy both is not easy, but it can be done.

That's what I'm really kind of focused on trying to do as a writer—write for those two audiences, concurrently. It's a tough needle to thread sometimes, but it's absolutely doable.

Script: Do you find that you're writing for a third audience as well? Which is to say the people who can say "yes" to making your movie because they have different tastes, I think, than some audiences and some critics.

Cargill: To a certain degree, but when you write a first draft to sell it, you do write it in a way for that audience, but that just means writing it to be a bit more blunt than you intend to make it. You'll underline certain moments in the script, you'll put in dialogue that makes things super clear that you know is gonna be in subtext in the movie, and you're gonna cut those lines out. But in terms of taste for producers and such, I have not met a producer yet that doesn't want to make The Godfather. Every producer who works in Hollywood for more than a couple of years wants two things: They want a movie that is critically well-received, possibly even award-winning, and they want it to be profitable. When it comes down to it, they'll take profitable over good, if they have to, but they want it to be profitable and good. That's what they're gunning for.

So, a lot of the times, even though they may have their own personal tastes, you end up being able to make the argument in the room that this is what the audience wants. If we do this, the critics are gonna run us over the coals. If we do this, we're stepping on a social media landmine, and they listen to that. You don't really have to go out of your way to please producers because the producers are trying to please the same people you are.

Producer J. Todd Harris on Working with Producers and Building a Successful Screenwriting Career

Script: As you go through your time as a critic, and then you add to that the time you've been writing movies that have been getting produced, has that ever changed your opinion of a movie? As you look at the trials that a story needs to go through to actually get to the screen, has it sort of softened your view of things that maybe you were more harsh with before?

Cargill: Oh, absolutely, in fact, it's one of those things that once I've done it, it made me believe that every great film critic should make one movie. They should be on the set working, even if it's just carrying cable or PAing on a film, watching the process of making a film. Being there in the trenches really does make you appreciate how certain things get done, how these things come to be made, and makes you more forgiving of certain foibles and certain flaws in a film. Once you've made a film, you can look at certain flaws in a film and go, "Oh, I know exactly what went on here. I know why this is."

As a critic, you go, "I don't understand why there's not more of this person in this movie." And the first time you're on a set, and you've got a person for two days, and it's on night shoots and you're chasing dawn to get a scene, and you realize you don't have time, and you're gonna have to cut a scene. That's why these things happen. You start to see that you start to understand why the flaws are there, and they become much more forgivable flaws because you're like, “I totally get that.” Especially when you're dealing with budget films. Yeah, it really does soften you. And what's great about it is it makes you appreciate films more. You love films more after having made a film than you do as a critic. In order to be a critic for very long, you have to have a real passion for film.

"I realized that there are these two major audiences, and they are radically different. There are critics, and there are general audiences. Trying to write a movie to satisfy both is not easy, but it can be done."

Everybody thinks they love movies, and everyone thinks their love of movies is better than everyone else. If you look on dating profiles, every dating profile is: "Must love riding horseback, sunsets on the beach, and watching movies." It's all that kind of an endemic thing that everybody loves, but you really, really have to have a passion for film to be a film critic. The idea of watching four or five movies in a row in a given day needs to be exciting and not sound like a slog.

But once you've made movies, you love movies even more than that. It becomes a true passion where you really do appreciate some of the finer notes of how a production got something to work, or a performance comes out, and you see all the parts, the moving parts. You appreciate those moving parts even more. It is absolutely something I would definitely recommend. Anybody who has not made a film yet, who is a critic or wants to make movies, just even getting a PA job on a film will teach you so much.

Script: To take that into screenwriting, though, how does an awareness of production realities affect your screenwriting?

Cargill: Well, you definitely have to think about the production when you're working on it. A lot of people like to just be like, “No, I'm gonna make this pie-in-the-sky script, and I'm gonna write what I wanna write, and write my imagination,” and that's great and all. But if you do a little thinking in advance, and think about the practicalities of what you're writing, you end up making for a better, easier shoot.

There are two stories I’ll tell from making Sinister. First of all, learn about eating and dining scenes. Eating is such a fundamental part of our culture, you know, sharing a meal with somebody. It allows you to have characters engage in a certain way that they wouldn't ordinarily engage. You can have a very long conversation over a dinner table, because that's exactly how it works. You also have to think about the actors eating, and the fact that they're going to be doing sometimes 15 and 20 takes of dialogue. If you have them shoveling food into their mouth while they do that, they're going to have to do that scene again and again and again. They're going to have to take smaller and smaller bites. Great long-term actors or veterans, you'll see them take the tiniest nibble of a bite when they eat in a movie, whereas amateurs will just start shoveling it on the first few takes and then learn very swiftly that their stomach is only so large. Then, you run into other problems. Some actors who are vegetarians. You have Jon Gries, who's vegetarian, famously on the set of Napoleon Dynamite in the scene that has him eating steak, and it's important to the scene, so he's literally chewing steak and then as soon as he's done, he spits it out into a spit bucket. That's a real thing that's gonna happen on production.

For the second thing: We wrote a scene in Sinister in which it's out in the backyard, it's foggy. There are five children standing in the fog, and we have a dog. We've added an element of weather, we've added children, and we've added animals to one scene, and it's 45 degrees at night and Scott [Derrickson] just looks at me and goes, "Why the fuck did we write this scene?" And my answer was, "Because we thought it would be cool." And it was a hellish night of shooting, and I was like, “Why did we put these three elements that could be totally random into this one thing?”

That was nuts of us. We got it, and it worked, and we got very lucky that it totally worked in the film. But sure enough in the six, seven years since that film came out, nobody has ever come up and said, that's their favorite scene. Their favorites are the ones that were super easy to shoot.

The big lesson that I learned is sometimes you gotta think about the physicality of the production, how you're gonna do a thing, when you're making that thing, and when you do, getting on the set makes it so much easier to make your days and get those shots and get a great movie.

Script: As you're dealing with those sorts of logistical ideas, especially for a film on a budget, when you're working on something like Doctor Strange, how does that shift your thinking as far as writing? Because it seems like in a Marvel movie, you could do whatever you want.

Cargill: You can! And we did, and we got to do lots of crazy stuff, and come up with really insane ideas. But, even then, they still operate on budgets, and there's a lot of our big ideas that ended up getting cut. Sometimes you have to make some sacrifices of some very cool visuals and moments in order to get the script under budget. You do get to do lots of super crazy stuff, and you get to set things in the most insane places, because they can just CG in city stuff in a way that you couldn't imagine. In a $3 million movie, you can't necessarily make a movie where a guy has an apartment overlooking Central Park, because just the rental price alone is gonna be crazy. With Marvel, they can just build it on a sound stage, CG in the view of the city, and you can't tell the difference. It looks like we shot it there on location.

Script:Doctor Strange had an element of time travel to it, and that's always something very tricky in screenwriting in general, as far as filmmaking in general, too. I'm wondering if you have tips for people using time travel, as a device, but also what kind of stuff you look for, and what sort of time-travel movies, you think, did it particularly well?

Cargill: Time-travel movies are a very special case. The issue with them is that everyone who watches science-fiction movies believe they have a PhD in Physics when it comes to time travel. Every single time-travel element will be questioned all the way through, regardless of how silly the movie is. People pick apart Hot Tub Time Machine. So, when you're making a Marvel movie that deals with time travel, when you're making a serious science-fiction film that deals with time travel, you have to be very careful about the logic of how it works, and you have to be able to explain it. Then you need to have something in the script to explain it to the audience so the audience knows what these particular time-travel rules are. If you don't explain the rules, they're going to assume their own rules of time travel. It's a very weird thing to play around with. It's a lot of fun. Time-travel movies are great. From Bill and Ted's and Hot Tub Time Machine, to crazy stuff, like The Jacket, or one of my other favorites, Slaughterhouse-Five.

There are a lot of super great time-travel movies out there, because it's such a great element. It's just such a fun genre, but it's so tricky to play with. By just adding that element to the script, you are adding extra scrutiny that the audience is going to give. The big tip that I give is to set up your rules. Lay your rules out early, and then the audience will go along with it, but if you don't, they will nitpick it to death.

Learn Screenwriting Lessons by Reading Screenplays — 10 Best of the Best

Script: One of the bits of advice that always gets tossed out is to read a lot of screenplays. What screenplays have you read that really knocked you out, as screenplays themselves?

Cargill: Well, I think that's advice that a lot of people give, and I don't think it's particularly good advice. I'm one of the people that disagree. I think it's important to read a couple of scripts. Understanding the structure of scripts. I think finding the right scripts to read to learn what you can and can't do in a script is great, but I always hear, "No, no, no, I read a lot of scripts, read a lot of scripts. You don't need screenwriting books, you don't need to watch a lot of movies, you need to read a lot of scripts." It's like, no, you need to know movies inside and out. You need to know what the audience expects, because the audience will never read the screenplay, they will see the movie. You need to know how movies move, and then learn how to write that.

Now, which ones blew my mind? Reservoir Dogs was a really, really great script, and that was published back with True Romance. True Romance also blew my mind because it was very interesting to see how a brilliant script got turned into a brilliant movie. But they are structured entirely differently. The script starts when Clarence gets to his buddy's house and says, "Oh man, this is Alabama. Let me tell you the weird story of how we met." And so the first half of the movie is a flashback, and then the second half is after they showed up in Richie's house.

One that really melted my brain was The Last Boy Scout by Shane Black. The way Shane Black writes action was a great master class in learning how to write action in a script because when action gets breathless on screen, he writes two-word sentences. Those two-word sentences, you see that image in your head, you see the quick-cuts. You’re just in it. You're seeing the movie. That genius element really, really did a number on me. I think those three scripts in particular profoundly taught me a lot.

But there are a lot of scripts that I've read that just didn't teach me anything about writing. People say, "Read a lot of scripts." But I think you need to read the right scripts, and hear from other screenwriters, "Hey, this script taught me this." You wanna seek those out and read those. But those are the three that really kinda melted my brain.

"You need to know what the audience expects, because the audience will never read the screenplay, they will see the movie. You need to know how movies move, and then learn how to write that."

Script: Can you tell me about working with a collaborator? There are a lot of screenwriting teams, and you work on your own, quite capably with your prose work. What's the difference for you and working with a partner?

Cargill: Well, the writing is better, faster. That's the thing: you've got somebody there who is also a very good writer, who is editing your work, and who is calling out your bullshit before your bullshit gets to evolve into bigger, harder-to-correct bullshit.

So, it’s one of those things where we write very quickly together. Generally, he and I can write a script from idea to finish in under six weeks, have it be good, and be proud of it. That first draft is generally as good as a third or fourth draft of mine, when I'm writing alone, because I've already got that feedback coming, and it's already being polished and tightened up as we go along.

How we work is, I'm a night person. I go to bed about seven in the morning. Scott's a day person with kids, and so he gets up, sends the kids off to school, and sits down at 9 AM with his coffee and starts to write. He passes it off to me in the afternoon. I wake up, if we need to talk, we get on the phone, or we Skype, or we email. Then I write at night. When he wakes up, he's got new pages. When I wake up, I've got new pages. We get to turn and burn and work 24 hours a day, five days a week. We take our weekends off to regroup and then come back at it Sunday night. As a result, we're constantly working and constantly revising and constantly making things better until we get a draft that really kind of pops.

11 Ways to Avoid Disaster When Choosing a Writing Partner

Script: A lot of people I've talked to—filmmakers, writers, etcetera, that work in collaborations, or even directors who have to marshal large forces of people to get them on the same page—they share a lot of movie recommendations and things like that. Is that part of your relationship with Derrickson? Like, you two speak that language of movies, and that's sort of a common element? Or do you screen movies and say, "Hey there's this moment. I think we could do something similar," then you go back and make recommendations and things like that. Do movies play that part in your process?

Cargill: Absolutely. In fact, we have a rule that the best argument wins. Both of our names are gonna be on that script, and we're both gonna get credit for that script. So, it doesn't matter whose idea is whose. The best argument wins, and the best argument is always based around movies.

"Oh, well you can't do this."

"Well, this movie did it, this movie did it, and this movie did."

"Well, yeah, but those movies got away with it because they were doing this, and they had a protagonist who did this."

And so, we started developing all of our theories around other movies. In fact, one of our big things with Sinister, Scott was just like, "You cannot kill kids in a movie, you just can't. The audience will rebel against you."

And I was like, "Well, you can't kill kids, but you can kill families. So if we make sure it's always the family getting it, the audience will buy that a family dies, but they don't like the emotional thing of having to watch a child alone, die."

So, we made sure that all of the death scenes were families... nobody had a problem with that. In fact, that kind of changed the landscape, and all of a sudden, people were like, "Well, Sinister, did it. We've started to see a slow evolution. Six years later, I go into a movie theater and watch Quiet Place, and there's this kid who just gets snatched in the first 10 minutes of the movie and murdered and you're like, "Holy shit, we have really come a very long way in what the audience will tolerate now."

But yeah, you start using movies to keep pushing the envelope and do something new. I remember when were making Sinister, we were having this big argument about the nature of the evolution of the character Ellison, and I was like, "You know what this needs to be?”

And Scott goes, "What?"

I said, "We need to structure this like The Changeling."

Scott's like, "Yes, yes, George Scott is so good in that movie, and the movie is told entirely from his perspective, and he's seeing the horror in themselves. So let's not show it from a family's perspective."

We started taking apart The Changeling and applying it to Sinister, and that became how we structured Sinister. So yeah, that is always on our minds and it's always the way we talk about things. We're always recommending movies to one another.

Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods Discuss 'A Quiet Place', Writing Process and So Much More

Script: How has your collaboration and writing style evolved from Sinister to now?

Cargill: We have learned to trust each other much more. Very early on, we would argue over a lot of changes and small things, and we have just gotten to know each other so well over the course of our work that when one of us makes a change, we trust it, "Oh okay, let me see where you're going with this." As opposed to, "No, why are you doing this? I'm just cutting this."

As a result, we move much quicker through the process, and it's much more streamlined. And if we have a question, we ask it, but we don't go back and just cut something and change it unless we really feel it needs to go. And then when we do that the other person then trusts that change.

It's very rare that I have to ask, "Why do I have to keep putting this back in? You keep cutting this, and I need this for a later scene."

Then Scott will say, "Oh well, because this or this." And he usually has a very good reason.

I'll be like, "Oh you know what, I didn't even... "

Famously, a great example, when we were working on Doctor Strange, we were trying to solve the problem with Kaecilius at the end with Mordo, and their confrontation. I had this great bit where essentially Kaecilius is trying to lure Mordo over, and Mordo was like, "No, no, no, I... You are not an apostle of Dorman. You're a servant, you're a slave, and I am no man's slave." Scott kept cutting that bit, and I'm like, "What do you have against this? I really like it. I think it's strong, it solves these problems we have."

He says, "We're casting Chiwetel Ejiofor for Mordo. The guy who was just in 12 Years a Slave. I'm not gonna have him say, 'I am no man's slave.'"

And I'm like, "Oh, I didn't even think about casting when I'm writing this, 'cause I'm thinking about writing Mordo and adapting Mordo from the comics. I wasn't even thinking about the cast you were negotiating with now, yeah, no, we can't do that. That's gonna make the audience chuckle in the wrong way."

We have learned to trust that there's a very good reason why the other is making a choice that is as big as, "Hey I'm cutting these lines." Or, "I'm re-writing this scene and restructuring it." Because you learn that the other person is seeing it from a way that you're not, and if you have a question, you ask. But otherwise, a lot of times, we're just like, "Oh hey, you know what, I like this." And so, that trust has allowed us to work much more smoothly and much more quickly.

Script: Some of the common wisdom is if you're writing a screenplay, and you're not directing yourself, you're not putting in camera direction and things like that. Do you find yourself following that? Even if Scott's making the movie? Or is that something you both do include, just as a matter of course, or is it something that you both specifically avoid?

Cargill: Not adding camera direction is a guideline, not a rule. It's one of those things where we train young writers not to do that because young writers will think, "Oh, I need to talk about a push in here, and I need to say that this is a medium shot, and this is a long shot, and this is a close up.” You don't need to say that stuff, but sometimes you do need in a script, some camera direction, because you're using the language of cinema. Sometimes you need to write, "the camera spins around and reveals that the killer is so-and-so." You need to have those camera direction moments in there. So yeah, I write camera direction into all my scripts. I write, "We see... " I try to avoid it, because it's starting to become an unfashionable thing. People complain a lot about using the words, "We see." I try to get around that, but sometimes you just can't, sometimes you're like... "We see this... we focus in on this..." So I do write camera direction in all my scripts, but in the limited amount, only when it's necessary for the storytelling. Because sometimes it is, but if it's not necessary for the storytelling, I avoid it unless it's a particularly cool image.

I think my favorite example that somebody used, counteracting that advice, was the scene from the latest Spider-Man movie, Into the Spider-Verse. That brilliant shot where you see Miles Morales kind of diving down, but it's inverted, and so it looks like he's going up, and it's such a cool moment. That was in the script. They came up with that moment, 'cause it's this great "hero moment" for Miles. That scene probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't written in the script. You do need to write that stuff in, but yeah, any of the minutia, totally avoid. And I never write any of the minutiae.

Script: What are some of those movies that you think can teach people something about structure?

Cargill: Oh, that's a good question. It depends on what type of movie you're looking to make. Every genre has its own structure rules. The big one, of course, is Star Wars, because Star Wars is such the ideal of monomyth. In fact, I would say Star Wars and TRON: Legacy are two movies you should watch to understand monomyth. Star Wars is monomyth done perfectly and TRON: Legacy is a movie told by fill in the blanks. I like TRON: Legacy, but TRON: Legacy is so slave-ish to monomyth that it was actually accused of not having a plot by prominent critics, because monomyth has become so invisible to them, they don't think of it as a plot anymore. So, I think those are great for that.

Everything by Tarantino is a master class in structure and tension. A great example is Inglorious Bastards. Every scene of Inglorious Bastards is about someone having a secret and someone else trying to get that secret. And it moves from scene to scene of watching how that tension of that secret is either revealed or ultimately kept and how that is structured. Every scene is structured brilliantly. So, that's a master class for structure.

I would say The Shining is a master class in how to structure a horror. It's very good in terms of its revelation of information. Another great one is a very neglected film called Never Let Me Go, which was written by Alex Garland. Never Let Me Go, is great because of how Alex Garland adapted that book. The end of every chapter would half-answer a question. It would only answer half the question and thus the other half that it didn't answer would lead you to ask more questions. And so, it was constantly going like that. The revelation of information over that movie slowly unravels this amazingly touching story that is very science fiction without having one science fiction device element in it. It's masterful. And so those are ones that would definitely recommend.

Script: Is there anything advice you’d give to pre-Sinister Cargill about screenwriting?

Cargill: Pretty much everything from my Twitter feed. My Twitter feed is just all the lessons that I've learned over the last several years. The biggest thing that I've learned, and that I share with everyone, the biggest lesson that I would go back and tell myself is, don't be afraid to suck. Nobody will see your writing until you're ready for them to see it. Don't spend as much time sitting around worrying about getting the words right the first time because you will be back, and you will have the better words later. The key is to get that writing out, and once you get that writing out, you can then fix it. It is quicker and easier to fix a thing than it is to put the thing down on paper.

So, getting the thing down on paper first is the most important thing. My first few scripts took longer than they probably should have because I was so... "it has to be perfect." My first novel was like that. I kept writing and re-writing the first three chapters for the first year, and then once I started breaking myself from the fear, and being unafraid, I was able to plow through it. That book took me two years to write, whereas Sea of Rust only took me like three months of writing time. It was broken up, but that's the time that took me. And then, We Are Where the Nightmares Go was written over the course of a long weekend. Once you remove the fear, and then can go and polish up, you can write some really amazing stuff, and write a lot more than you think you can.

7 Lessons in Outlining, First Draft & Fear, Oh My!

The other thing I would tell myself is the lesson that I learned about a year and a half ago, and frames how I write now. I'm so much happier having done it. Set a low daily page count. Set a page count you know you can leap over in under an hour. I can easily write three pages in an hour, so I set three pages to the day. That doesn't mean I write three pages every day. But that's my target, and since I set that low target, I now hit my target every workday. So on a bad week, I'm putting 15 pages into a script but most weeks, I'm putting 20 to 30 pages into a script, and so as a result, I am writing faster, I'm taking less time up in my day to write, and I'm able to spend more time on the creative element of it. 95% of writing happens away from the keyboard, so I'm able to spend more time doing that, and I'm relaxed, and I don’t feel pressured or under the gun. I don't feel like, "Oh man, I gotta get even more."

I used to set a high word count or a high page count. I was always disappointed. Sometimes the anxiety of having to work would keep me from working. Keep me procrastinating. Now I get my work done early in the day and can move on and enjoy other things. If I do have it pushed back and don't get started till three in the morning, I know I can hit my three pages in an hour and be done by four, and wind down and go to bed at seven without a problem.

So, it really has changed my life and my work habits, and made me a much happier and more prolific writer. That's the big thing that I would tell myself. To do this. I tried everything. I tried having set work hours. I'm like, "I'm gonna write three hours a night, starting at two until five in the morning. I tried setting page counts, I tried sending word counts. And this is the thing that's worked, and this is the thing that's made my life and my work happy. So that's what I would tell myself.

More articles by Bryan Young

Download our on-demand webinar, Writing Great Horror Films and TV Shows


Screenwriter Glenn M. Benest, who worked alongside legendary horror writer Wes Craven, offers tips on writing horror films and TV shows.