Full Sail University’s Storytelling Course Director was interviewed by Film Riot about screen writing, and I’d like to give my take on his questions.
Where I get my ideas
This is something right out of the planning stage. I’m always listening to chart music to discover new songs that motivate me to write something that excites me personally, and listening to that song on a loop, I’ll brainstorm all the things it makes me think about. Then from there, I’ll work out everything I need to tell a story about those things, and will often improvise my first draft, before editing it to be more well-structured later on. For example, with my current project – Working Title “Evolve Hard“, my notes were made listening to Fall Out Boy’s Immortals, and my notes were:
Heroes that are rebellious for a good reason. They’re rebelling against a terrible oppressive government. Lots of Heaven/Hell analogies, with companionship and romantic adventurousness. What would the Doctor be like if he were a Killjoy?
There’s lot [sic] of flamboyance and wise-cracking, but dangerous situations. And through it all, they have each other. It’s a post-apocalyptic future. They have massive, penis-bulging weapons and decorate themselves. One is a bisexual half-cheetah, and the others wear long coats, domino masks and clothes they’ve styled themselves.
Only after this did I work out what storytelling elements would be necessary in bringing it to life, and modified everything around that. The hybrid elements came about from me having already created the protagonist (based on my obsession with furry animals), and putting him in this story needed an explanation, so I decided that the heroes are all animals hybrids, and that added to the backstory.
Dialogue is overrated. All dialogue does is to just express the story in a language spoken by the audience. Often, I won’t even rewrite dialogue until the final draft because all that matters is what it’s expressing. It’s decorative.
If there’s a problem with dialogue, it’s because the fault is really with the story the dialogue is just expressing. There’s a myth that characters should talk like real people. But that’s not true, because the audience aren’t idiots, they know these characters aren’t real. Part of the fun is in characters that have dialogue that could only have been scripted.
If it’s not corny, what’s wrong with it sounding scripted? Stories themselves aren’t real, but they’re still the best thing invented. “Mmmhmm… this is a tasty burger” is one of my favourite dialogue lines just for its delivery. Nobody actually talks like that, but I say that’s part of the fun.
That said, I also write a lot of prose, so I tend to write lots of banter between characters that might not advance the story but is still there to advance our understanding of the characters. For example:
Your boyfriend’s got a good stamina!
He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my fuck buddy.
That kind of thing. For a short film I wrote, Ghosts in the Snow, the second draft was entirely dialogue-based, because I thought telling a story in one location through dialogue would somehow make me look like a better screenwriter than I am. Let me tell you, it was terrible. Mainly because I contracted the dialogue to a few words from each character, back-and-forth.
Being the screenwriter, I understood what it meant, but no one else did. I remember my lecturer described it as screw ball comedy without the comedy. They were right.
The three-act structure isn’t something that I need to explain, because it’s not a personal style, it’s just an element of screen writing that should be there. To be honest, I’ve always considered a three-act structure present in a story regardless. Does it start with a beginning, have a middle and end with an end? It’s got a three-act structure.
The difference is that a three-act structure shouldn’t be obvious. If the screenplay is visible on screen, it’s not written with enough personal style to make it unique. Generally, the second act is where the interesting stuff happens. Do what you want, just put it in the middle.
Yes, introducing characters and establishing the conflict is important. And, please, do conclude it somehow. But that’s just logistical stuff. The story that you want to tell goes in act two.
And it doesn’t need any kind of pre-set structure. My philosophy is that writing should be fun. And I have fun reading a screenplay when I can tell the screenwriter had fun writing it. But, when there’s only ninety to one-hundred-and-fifty pages to tell the story, it helps to begin “in medias res”, after a universe has been established – that way, the audience are more interested because they’re getting straight into the story, rather than lots of world-building (which should also go in Act II).
Just a few, short points here: my screen writing software of choice is Celtx. It doesn’t cost a thing, but does everything a screenwriter needs it to. And don’t let its free nature put you off; independent film-makers with a budget use Celtx, because it comes with the fundamental elements a screenwriter would need. Any more than that, and they’d be a director or producer, and if that’s the case, they don’t need tutorials like this.
That said, several student screenwriters on my course don’t seem to understand this, and thought that presenting a stage play in Times New Roman is adequate (spoiler alert: it’s not). Don’t ask me why Lee didn’t mention Celtx.
What not to do
I’ve always found this to be pretty simple. The worst mistake a screenwriter can make, who isn’t directing or producing, is to write as if they are. My earliest exposure to reading scripts was the on-line scripts for Doctor Who, but they’re television scripts written by the showrunner, who has a specific vision for how a scene works. I mimicked this style consistently until I really learned what a good script looks like.
In fact, writing camera directions will result in being marked-down on my course. Ironically, it’s an element of Celtx.
…yeah, writer’s block doesn’t exist. Writer’s block is basically man flu. Writer’s block is the condition of being a writer. You know why?
Because it makes sense for an artist to have some sort of creative judgement. So considering that to be a block in some way is to deny that you’re a good artist. “Oh no, I can tell this scene isn’t very good. Clearly, I have no ability to engage with my art, so I’m not going to bother with it.” That’s literally what it sounds like.
And now, I’m going to share with you the first page of a script I wrote. I wanted to choose between Ghost in the Snow and a pilot I wrote, and ultimately I decided to go with Ghost in the Snow – mainly because the TV pilot is something I’ve come to hate. This should be an indication of how I write: