Monday, November 19, 2012

Screenwriting – What’s Hot and What’s Not

You’ve written a great script, a killer log line, and a treatment that does justice to your story. You’ve attended conferences and film festivals. You’ve packaged the script in plain card stock and two brads. You’ve gotten feedback from judges in contests and consultants who constantly take the pulse of the industry. How else can you learn what Hollywood bigshots and indie directors are seeking?

Read the trades, including Variety and Hollywood Reporter, directories like Hollywood Creative Directory, and on-line news mags such as Moviebytes.

Some on-line lead services, such as InkTips, list directors seeking specific types of scripts. The requirements can be as general as “script for 20-something female lead, any genre. Two million budget” or as specific as “psychological horror script, no slashers, set in Tokyo with a 30-something male American lead. Mumblecore (micro budget).”

With InkTips there are two routes to go. You can pay for the full list of leads ($50 for four months) or take the free service, which lists a few possibilities with access codes and links to send your log line, synopsis, and bio to the director. My collaborators and I have found response times vary greatly, but there have been several bites, “send the whole script please.”

Hollywood, like the N.Y. publishing world, likes to see more of the successful – same but different. Familiar says the world is ready for it. Different means it’s a new take on a tested idea. Writing to trends is risky. By the time you complete the script and try to get it out there what’s impressing the box office may be different. Write the movie you’d like to go see. Then pitch it.

Make your script sound as hot as you know it is. Convey your unique premise as HIGH CONCEPT. Imagine what your audience will see on the movie poster. What is its essence? The fewer words you can use to convince someone of its mass audience appeal, the higher the concept, the hotter your story.

Consider crossing one film with another. “Die Hard Meets Forest Gump.” Give them a quick idea of where you’re going. Jaws in space – Alien. Only compare it with movies or books that sold well. If your hook, main conflict and genre are clear and catchy, your script “has legs.”

Give it an attention-getting title, not The Shark but Jaws. I’ve always felt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was intriguing but hard to remember. On the other hand, could there be a better, more appropriate title than Snakes on a Plane? It’s a high concept pitch, clear genre and conflict all rolled into one short phrase.

Now you know a few ways of discovering what’s hot and can practice making your high concept script stand out. Go sell! And remember: keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.

---  From the Inkpot

(first published in the Writing From the Peak blog September 13, 2011)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Screenwriting – Ready to Adapt?


In previous postings I discussed what to consider when deciding whether or not to adapt your story into a screenplay, various forms of story that have been successfully remade for the big screen, the upsides and downsides to turning book to script, and methods that are commonly used to do so.

Are you ready to take the next step?

Preparing adequately will make the screenwriting process go more smoothly. If you are adapting another author’s work, seek rights first. Consider the budget, audience and attached stars (if you are lucky enough to have them lined up). Then prepare. Whether it’s your work or someone elses, there are several useful steps to take.

1) Read the book over and over until you are infused with its spirit.

2) Ask what the story is about.

3) What scenes stick in your mind and why? (Ted Tally, who adapted The Silence of the Lambs, usually latches on to 6-7 scenes.)

4) Reduce each event to a 1-2 sentence statement; be sure it’s a story well-told.

5) Who’s the main character? You may change the POV – The Silence of the Lambs had three other POVs, but Tally considered it Clarice’s story.

6) What’s the ending? Can you make it more visual? Add unity with it? Maintain sympathy for the protagonist?

7) Can you make the beginning grab the audience? The novel The Silence of the Lambs starts with Clarice Starling heading to learn her assignment. The movie starts with her on the training range – showing she’s a dedicated trainee.

Now prepare to reinvent.

1) Reorder events in proper time line.

2) Cut, combine, and create scenes as needed.

3) Turn internal into external.

4) Decide which characters to keep (7 or so).

5) List key dramatic action scenes.

6) Find the powerful dialogue that drives the plot.

7) Be aware of where the passion is.

What needs cutting?
1) Facts unnecessary to the less complex plot.

2) Incidents (Clarice’s confrontation with Senator Martin in The Silence of the Lambs).

3) Some subplots (Detective Crawford’s dying wife in The Silence of the Lambs).

4) Minor characers (or combine characters).

5) Meld several scenes into one.

6) Flashbacks.

7) Philosophies and over thematic content.

8) Pare unnecessary verbiage.

9) Preserve only the best bits of business.

Can you tell I like the adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs?

Do not remove feeling and humor.

What needs to be expanded?

1) Build up certain characters or add some.

2) New scenes to tie bits together (but scenes shouldn’t look like they are there just to fill holes).

3) Missing information that builds your story.

4) "If you need something for the story MAKE IT UP!” – Syd Field

5) Expand character development and subplots in a shorter work like Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption.

As you can see, adapting a story is a complicated undertaking. Typically a writer can’t simply transcribe from a novel to a screenplay. Fidelity in adaptation – how faithful you are to the original – varies. But one must accept that the author’s original vision is typically altered in order to suit the cinematic format.

Best of luck in changing your book to a screenplay. Let us all know when it hits the big screen! In the meantime, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.

---- from the Inkpot

(first published on the Writing From the Peak blog August 16, 2011)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Adaptation: How to Do It

As discussed in the last blog post, there are many forms of writing that can be adapted to film. Because the most common is novel to script, my example assumes you are moving from book to screenplay.

If you have a novel, there are three common ways of approaching adaptation to film. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

1) Follow the book beat by beat.


- Outline is there for you and YA length lends itself (Holes is a good example)


- It can come off crowded with characters, jerky and melodramatic (motivation doesn’t match action).

- You will have to cut the story down to 2 hours—at 1 page per minute

- You will likely anger some readers.

2) Work from key scenes.


- Pick most colorful, dramatic scenes.


- Scenes tied together artificially will not look like the novel.

- Again, you’ll anger some readers.

3) Construct an original screenplay based on the book.


- Nail down the premise, decide on an appropriate POV (maybe different than the book’s)

- Determine beginning/middle/end, write a treatment and first chapter (called a master scene script).


- Must start from scratch and reduce to filmable dimensions.

- Still you’ll get complaints from readers.

Despite all the reader belly-aching, the biggest box-office successes tend to be adaptations. Since Oscars began in 1927-28, more than 3/4 of the Best Picture awards have gone to adaptations of novels. William Goldman is proof that a script can be made from a book without being 100% true to the book and without disappointing readers or viewers. When adapting Marathon Man, his own novel, he kept only one scene from the book (Olivier in the diamond district). Stephen King didn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s handling of The Shining, but the movie is brilliant if you don’t connect it to the source material.

The moral of this posting: Choose the right story, learn the craft, and be flexible. Write a screenplay that keeps the soul of the book and you may touch many more people with your story. In my next post I’ll discuss useful steps to take as you prepare to turn a novel into a screenplay. Until then, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.         ----   From the Inkpot          (first appeared in the Writing From the Peak blog  July 19, 2011)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Screenwriting: More to Consider Before Turning Your Story Into a Screenplay

Notice I said story instead of novel.  Most of us could name dozens of bestselling novels that have been adapted.  Three recent ones: Memoirs of a Geisha, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Time Traveler’s Wife

But there are numerous examples of other story forms that have been successfully adapted:  autobiography (Pursuit of Happiness), YA (Holes), novella (Shawshank Redemption), picture book (Where the Wild Things Are), Comic Book (Spider Man), nonfiction (Helter Skelter), short story (Brokeback Mountain), collection of short stories (Trainspotting), play (Death of a Salesman), journalism (All the President’s Men), lecture (An Inconvenient Truth), blog (Julie and Julia), T.V. Script (X Files), TV skit (Blues Brothers), graphic novel (V for Vendetta), video game (Mortal Kombat), poem (Iliad adapted as Troy), earlier film (Oceans Eleven 2001, 1960).

If you obtain the rights to adapt another author’s work, and even if you adapt your own story, be aware that film is collaborative; your script and the way it comes off on the screen will likely be different from your vision of it.  Other writers have a go at it.  Even the directors and actors implement their own visions.  Some say the writer is the lowest woman on the totem pole. 

I’ve heard successful novelists insist the writer’s dream is to sell the script and have it NOT made, get the money but not have the work butchered.  When eating lunch with David Morrell, I was surprised to hear that he wasn’t happy with the hugely successful adaptation of his novel First Blood/Rambo.  His main beef: a character he considered very important to his story was simply dumped for purposes of the movie.  Though it went on to become a Sylvester Stallone vehicle franchise and made Morrell loads of money, it disappointed him.

Don’t let the warnings discourage you from adapting your story, however.  There are still good reasons to do it. 

1)    If your agent can sell your book to Hollywood (ka-chink), having the script ready to go means the agent can more easily negotiate for you to be paid to do the first pass at the script (ka-chink).  Count on other established script writers being brought in to do a rewrite or two or three…
2)    You might be one of the lucky few whose script sells before the book or simultaneously.
3)    As I will preach throughout this series, writing screenplays will improve your other writing.

Next time I’ll discuss methods of turning your story into a screenplay.  In the meantime, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief.  Don’t step on the director.  Avoid dusk and dawn. 
---- from the Inkpot
(first published in the Writing From The Peak blog  June 20, 2011)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Screenwriting: Your Motivations For Turning Story Into Script

It's important to consider your motivations for converting your story into a screenplay. Besides learning skills you can bring into your other writing, why would you want to turn your story into a script? Fame and fortune?

Many of us dream of fortune; most of us have learned the hard way that this one is elusive. Fame? How many people in the world know who Julia Roberts is? Steven Spielberg? How many remember Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty? Maybe as creator of Six Feet Under, but for his original screenplay? When his script won the Academy Award in 2000, the announcer didn’t even pronounce his name correctly. If fame and fortune are at the top of your list, you may want to step back and study the industry. I suggest The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke A. Wharton, recommended to me by a young film director, and Hello, He Lied--and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches by Lynda Obst. Despite the brutal realities explored in these tell-all books, film is quickly becoming the central conveyor of storytelling in our culture. If your story lends itself to the big screen, if you master the script-writing craft, if you do a good job at adapting your work, you may reach millions worldwide. Fame and fortune may follow.

The learning curve will vary. For most, it will not be a light decision made over coffee one morning. The most important thing to consider—and probably least understood—is that adaptation is NOT being true to the original. A book is a book; a screenplay is a screenplay. Even when a book is wildly popular, there’s no guarantee a movie based on its story will be. Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a script that tried to stay too true to the book and failed. It was not a visual enough story.

Do an honest assessment. Do you have a visual story to tell? Can it be distilled into a 1-2 sentence statement (its soul)? Is it one that has scenes that stick in your mind and a few dynamic characters? Can it be made less complex than your original storyline? Does it have an ending that adds to the unity of the script and sympathy for the protagonist? Are you willing to reorder events in proper time line, create scenes as needed, cut 200-400 pages down to 80-120 pages with less on each page? Are you able to turn the mental into the physical?

If you answered yes to the above questions, you may want to consider adapting your story into a screenplay. Next time, I’ll discuss a few more things to consider before you do and what goes into deciding whether or not to turn story to script. After that, I'll explore the upsides and downsides to methods commonly used in creating adaptations. The next post after that will discuss three typical approaches to adaptation. In the final post on this subject I'll suggest a step-by-step approach you can use to write the adaptation. So stay tuned!

I'd love to hear why you'd like to turn your story into a screenplay, whether or not you are ready, and why.

Meanwhile, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.  

Fade Out.

--- the Inkpot

(first published in the Writing From the Peak blog May 23, 2011)