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MEET THE READER: Some New Year Resolutions for Screenwriters

Script reader Ray Morton offers advice to get screenwriters back on track with New Year's resolutions to improve both your craft and your sanity.

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Resolutions for Writers

We have just embarked upon a new year, which – as always – provides us with the opportunity to make a fresh start. For screenwriters, the dawning of 2020 is a chance to finally get started on that script you’ve been meaning to write for a long time; to return to that project you shelved a while back; to learn some new skills; and to try some new things. Here are a few resolutions for 2020 that I am considering and that you may want to make for yourself:

Resolve to Write Something You Love

Too many beginning writers try to write for the market – they pen a script they think will sell rather than tackle material they’re really interested in. I’m all for selling, but the problem is that most scripts of this sort are flat and uninvolving. This is primarily because scripts written to sell are usually based on scripts that have already sold – in other words they are (consciously or unconsciously) recycling old material rather than breaking new ground and so have a “seen it all already” quality that turns buyers off. It is also because such scripts are written with calculation rather than passion. As I have said many times before, scripts don’t sell because they have a great concept (they do have to have a great concept, but a good idea by itself is not enough. It might have been back at the height of the spec script boom, but that was a long time ago in an industry far, far away) or because they follow a specific paradigm or because all of the formatting is perfect – they sell because they move the reader. It takes passion to move a reader – energy, enthusiasm, a strong point of view, a deep love of the material at hand, a personal investment in the narrative being told – something a script written with calculation by its very nature can never have. Will passionately-written personal specs sell? Maybe; maybe not, but the truth is very little spec material sells in this era of pre-sold, brand-driven mainstream filmmaking. Studios these days are primarily making unoriginal films – sequels, remakes, and adaptations of pre-existing properties. However, they are looking for high quality writers with distinctive voices to script this derivative material. At this time, a spec script has more potential as a calling card than it does as a sales piece so the more fresh and passionate your work, the better the chance that it will pay off for you. In other words, you stand a better chance of selling if you write not to sell. So – for the sake of your soul and your wallet – resolve this year to take your eye off the market and put it onto your heart.

[Living and Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone]

Resolve to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Are you good at writing action? Try writing something character-driven. Are you adept at penning comedy? Try crafting a thriller. Are you a movie writer? Pen a TV pilot. Doing something outside of your usual arena can be a valuable exercise because it can help you strengthen your weaker skills and develop a range of entirely new ones. It will force you to think in new ways, approach material differently, and give you a fresh set of problems to solve – all of which will sharpen your wits and expand your creativity. It may also make your scripts better – your expertise in your chosen genre may allow you to introduce fresh elements to your new arena and the talents and perspective you develop plowing new fields may invigorate your regular material. Stretching is a good thing to do when you exercise and it’s also an excellent thing to do when you write.

Resolve to Watch Some Classic Films.

An important part of any arts education is to study the work of the masters who have come before you. That’s why you see all those arts students hanging out in museums – they peer intently at the great drawings and paintings and copy them into their sketchbooks so they can analyze the techniques the giants used to achieve the results they did. The students then use that knowledge and those techniques to enhance and improve their own work. If you want to be a screenwriter, it is important to watch great films and dissect them in order to understand how to best structure a screen story, how to effectively build and employ movie characters, how to use dialogue to further the cinematic narrative and so on. However, many young writers these days refuse to look at look at older films (and by old, I mean anything made prior to the production of Pulp Fiction, which for many current aspiring filmmakers seems to be the beginning of all cinema as we know it) – dismissing them as irrelevant and “boring” (apparently because they are in black and white, are more deliberately paced than most modern blockbusters, and haven’t been edited in a Cuisinart). The folks with this attitude are missing out on a lot – not just on the enjoyment of seeing some very entertaining pictures (even if they are in black and white), but also on some very valuable wisdom. The cinema has been around for more a little more than a century now and in those one hundred years screenwriters have told a lot of different stories in a lot of different ways. The screen scribes of yesteryear faced the exact same storytelling challenges young writers face today and found wonderfully effective solutions for them. Examining those solutions can only make your work better, so it seems incredibly foolish not to look to them for guidance. There are so many great films in so many genres worth looking at – here’s a short list of just a few films it is essential for young writers to study: City Lights, The General, All Quiet on the Western Front, Stagecoach, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, Duck Soup, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Searchers, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, American Graffiti, The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Star Wars, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Ordinary People. There are so many more, all of them a treasure trove of inspiration and practical problem solving.

[Rian Johnson Talks Screenwriting and What Classic Movies Can Teach Us]

Resolve to Continue to Study Your Craft

Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals refer to their work as a “practice,” the idea being that when you work in those fields, you never reach a point where you are done – where there is no more left for you to learn and no more improvement left for you to make. Instead, you are always practicing – always honing your skills, always looking for ways to get better and to do better. I think creative people should regard our careers in the same way – we should never think of ourselves as being “finished,” but instead to always regard our work as an ongoing practice that will make us ever stronger, ever sharper, ever better. With that in mind, resolve to keep learning – about the core principles of dramatic writing, about the techniques and possibilities of cinematic storytelling, about the best ways to craft stronger characters, sharper dialogue, and the like.

Resolve to Ignore the “Gurus” and “The Rules.”

There are a lot of wonderful screenwriter teachers out there whose advice, input, suggestions, and encouragement can really help you make your work better. I hope I am one of them (I certainly strive to be). But there are also a number of self-appointed screenwriting “experts” (as if there can ever be such a thing in art) dotting the screenwriting education landscape who insist that they and they alone know the secret formula for writing and selling successful screenplays (which they will graciously share with you in exchange for an exorbitant fee). These folks craft very precise and specific screenplay paradigms that they insist must be followed exactly – without deviation or variation – and that if they are not, then your script will be a complete and utter failure. This is, of course, nonsense, but there are a lot of people out there – especially nervous up-and-coming writers who have not yet developed confidence in their creative skills and judgment and are looking for certainties to measure themselves against and nervous studio executives who don’t know how to tell if a screenplay is good or not (script analysis is not a course that is usually offered in business and law schools) and are looking for a shortcut that will take the guesswork out of the process for them – who buy what these gurus are selling hook, line, and sinker. Their influence has not been great for modern screenwriting, resulting in a lot of rote, formulaic scripts that adhere perfectly to these geniuses’ paradigms but have no life in them whatsoever. As you write your way into 2016, resolve to ignore these gurus and their “rules.” Absorb the basic principles of dramatic storytelling, take advice from encouraging mentors, and then just tell you tale. Your script will be much better for it and you will be much happier.

[Which Screenwriting Experts Should You Believe?]

Resolve to Have Fun

I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but I think it’s a really important point: whatever else they can be, at their core movies are meant to be entertaining – to be amusing, thrilling, provocative, and/or moving. Unfortunately, entertainment is an element that is missing from a large majority of the specs I read. Many beginning screenwriters choose to write “serious” scripts, which often end up being rather grim and joyless. But even writers who take a lighter approach seem to settle for tepid results – they write comedies that contain a few smiles, but no big laughs; thrillers that contain a lot of frantic action, but little suspense, surprise, or white knuckle excitement; horror scripts with a few cats –jumping-out-of-nowhere scares, but no real terror; romances with lots of cutesy exchanges but little in the way of genuine heart; and so on. So let us all resolve to go all in when we write – to have fun creating and pour that fun into our work so it can be transmitted to our readers, to our buyers, and eventually to our viewers.

I wish you all a very happy and productive 2020!


Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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