How to write a Screenplay…does anybody know?

How to write a Screenplay…does anybody know?

Balance.  Life is all about balance.

I type that as if I have some profound proof as to why…but the truth is, I don’t.  I am just presuming. It sounds good, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be right…so perhaps it is.  I like to think it is.

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When I was in college I began to make it clear to anybody I knew or anybody I met that my passion was screenwriting.  I was still relatively young and no doubt some of it was my attempt to forge an identity and direction for myself and impress people with my “artistic tendencies” but it was still a truth that had yet truly taken hold of me.  I wrote, but I wrote the same as a teenager plays guitar in their room- for pleasure and to feed the fantasy of being in a band/big time director.  One of my first jobs, initially as a YTS, was in retail at River Island and a friend I made there (that I have unfortunately lost touch with over the years) Richard, bought me my first copy of Syd Fields ‘Screenplay’ book as a birthday gift.  This was my first exposure to screenwriting as an actual craft and the first time I heard of and learnt about the “3 act paradigm”.

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I’m not sure if it was a revelation, in fact I’m not even sure that I really paid much attention to it for a while, I was happier to possess it rather than to utilise it.  In a way, I thought it further validated my credence as a “proper writer” but I can’t say I treated it as I imagine a proper writer might.  When I finally went to university at the ripe age of 30, to take a Masters degree in Creative Writing, I was reintroduced to the book (my second copy as I borrowed the first out only to never get it back!) and to the craft of screenwriting.  The nuts and bolts of structure and technique and treating it as far more than just an enjoyable way to pass time.

I was learning – from scratch – how to do something I had spent the last 15 years trying to do.

It was humbling and eye-opening and frustrating all at the same time and the headline is that – despite what the letters after my name may suggest, I am still none the wiser as to the right way to do it.  That’s if there even is a right way at all!  Since the days of Syd Field, I have invested in loads of different books of the same type in an attempt to hone a skill that I am starting to doubt I will ever truly master.  Save the Cat, Writing Screenplays that Sell, The Screenwriters Workbook, The Art of Dramatic Writing etc. etc. etc., all of them written for writers and all of them bought with the same hope attached to them.  To make me better at what I want to do.  The problem is, I don’t know if any of them have?  Part of that could be the crippling self-doubt that I alluded to in a previous blog post, an affliction that no doubt casts its shadow over even the most seasoned professional, but some of it is genuinely uncertainty about the authority of the books authors.

Success.  How do you define it?  By measuring earnings, size of cars, number of possessions, the size of the rock on your significant others hand? Or do you define it by something a little harder to quantify?  If I am to look at Blake Snyder, the author of Save the Cat (one of my preferred texts on screenwriting by the way), he has undoubted success as an author of books dedicated to the craft of screenwriting and, as a screenwriter himself, his credits have been sold and made him millions.  But when I look a little deeper, I am unsure if his admittedly helpful advice is completely applicable to what I want to achieve.  To what I define as success.  His credits include; ‘Stop! Or my mom will shoot!’ and ‘Blank Check’.  In anybody’s book, it would be hard to class these as classic films yet, before his untimely death in 2004, Snyder was revered and celebrated for his deconstruction of the screenwriting craft.  But is it all pointing towards writing in genres that are purely about making money? And if so, isn’t this a little…cynical…and does it detract from the art of it all? 

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Again, I guess it depends on how you define success.  It’s not wrong to define success as a screenwriter by how much money you make from selling screenplays.  In fact, this has got to be the ultimate aim for any screenwriter?  After all, it’s the only way to make a living doing it BUT…being celebrated for writing ‘Stop! Or my mom will shoot!’, or for writing the screenplay to ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’, which won an Oscar in 1976, are arguably two different things.  In the latter case, the screenwriters aren’t known for anything else as far as I can make out, but does this make them less successful? In my eyes, they are the more successful but just as defining success is subjective, so is the definition for art.  Maybe ‘Stop! Or my mom will shoot!’ is art…just not the art that I like, but if the writer of the book designed to turn me into a better screenwriter writes screenplays that I cannot respect as art, then should I really pay too much attention to what he says I should be doing to hone my craft?

I guess the answer is both yes and no.  At least I think it is.  It seems foolish to completely dismiss what is obviously a proven formula for success (definition pending!) in screenwriting.  I can honestly say that, despite my reservations, Snyder’s formulas and breakdown of working have indeed inspired me and helped me in my writing.  It offers a practical guide that can be referenced again and again and it is a serious help when you are struggling with some of the framework of script writing.  But as to whether or not it helps you creatively?  I struggle to think of how it could.  Ideas surely cannot come from such rigid text; I mean how is creativity inspired by such a formulaic way of working? That isn’t meant as a criticism of Snyder or Save the Cat or of any of the other Screenwriting “manuals’ that exist, simply an observation to what I see as the real difficulty in successful screenwriting.  Catching ideas.

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One of my favourite writer/directors and undoubtedly the guy I look at as the benchmark in originality and creativity is David Lynch.  No doubt I will dedicate another blog post soon to his influence on me soon but for now, I will just reference one of his books on ideas and how to catch them.  It is called “Catching the Big Fish” and it speaks of his belief in the benefits of Meditation, for both spirituality and creativity and the biggest thing I took from it was the importance of patience.

Ideas are out there, waiting to be found, but…like fishing…it can take a lot of time, stillness and patience to catch the really big ones.  And when you do…don’t let them go!

A quote that always stuck with me, despite me not knowing who said it or where I first heard it (!) is; “Sometimes it takes 4 hours of time to create 1 hours’ worth of great painting.”  I think I heard Lynch himself say it, although he never credited himself as having come up with it but I apply it to writing too.  It’s not all about what is on the page, it’s about what you create and digest and mould in your subconscious and in your mind.  You can write without a pen and paper or without your laptop.  You can write in your head and let the ideas come…and go…and return and when they are ready, when they are ripe…just like fruit…you can pick them.  It’s great to have the foundations that books like ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘Screenplay’ offer.  They give you a valuable insight into the technical aspect of structuring a story and developing ideas coherently, but would Kubrick or Lynch bother so much with them?  Maybe they would but I like to think that they would also give just as much importance to the possibilities of freedom in creativity and just go where the ideas take them.  After all, the whole reason any of us start in any creative field is because we love it, we enjoy it and it offers us a pleasure and a release that very few things can even come close to mimicking.

I don’t know how to write a perfect screenplay; I don’t know how to define success for anybody else other than myself.  I don’t really know what art is beyond the tastes I have personally.  But I know that it is just as important to pay attention to the things you perhaps immediately lean towards dismissing, as it is to be attentive to the things you seem desperate to follow.

In the end, I guess it’s all about balance.

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