- WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Do I write from personal experience? Sure. Dialogue from daily, real-world insanity can’t be beat. Try this exercise: Write down something you hear this week. On the subway, on the line at Target…you’ll know it when you hear it. Check out the repetition, the interruption, cursing, lost thought, imbecility, dialects. These are hard to create from scratch.
Does that mean you have to be a murderer to write a murderer? Of course not. But it might explain why a 19 year-old at Columbia College might have trouble finding a short film subject. Lack of real-world experience never helps a writer. Do you have to go through hell in a relationship to write about one? Not necessarily. But as Bukowski said, it doesn’t hurt.
A student of mine was a Marine interrogator. When she wrote a war piece on Afghanistan. Yes, there were interrogation scenes and they were helped by her expertise. But that’s not why she wrote the script. She had something to say about the war, it was her passion. So, bottom line, write what you know.
Recall the scribe who said: “You think your life will make an interesting movie. Trust me, it won’t.”
- WITHHOLDING INFORMATION
Hitchcock defined suspense:
“Suppose there’s a bomb hidden in a room and it’s set to go off at one o’clock. If the audience doesn’t know the bomb is there, it explodes, there’s a big boom, and the audience says, ‘What the heck was that?’
But if the audience does know about the bomb—if they know exactly where the bomb is hidden and exactly when it will go off—that’s when you create suspense. Someone goes to open the cupboard where the bomb is hidden…but at the last moment, someone else calls the first person away. Someone comes in and invites everybody to go outside to play croquet…but nobody’s interested. A dog starts sniffing about the cupboard…but the dog’s owner says, “Bad boy!” and pulls the dog away. The tension builds each time it looks like someone might find the bomb, or convince everybody to leave the room safely. By the time one o’clock rolls around, the whole audience is on the edge of its collective seat.”
So much of storytelling is about withholding information. Who has the information? When do you give the audience the information? Knowing when to give and when to hold back is the essence of suspense. But that isn’t the only genre where this applies. Withholding information is as important for romantic comedy as mystery. What you don’t want is exposition. Anyone can have the husband blather on about his cheating wife. Fellini shows the man playfully following a dog, turning a corner to find his wife kissing a strange man.
Where do the twists/reveals/surprises happen in your story? Have you outlined, thought it all out? Did you provide red herrings, false leads? Understand when to give, and when to withhold information.
- THE DOUBLE BIND
Put your protagonist in a double bind. If he does X, something bad happens. If he does Y, it’s worse. Force them to choose…
This is an impossible situation, with true and terrible stakes. How characters react is why we go to movies. Putting ourselves into that brutal, ridiculous, hilarious moment with them. DeNiro in Deer Hunter, not wanting to die but stepping in to play Russian Roulette because– if he doesn’t– Christopher Walken will die. Or Godfather 2, when Michael realizes that Freddy has betrayed him ( in the Cuban nightclub). Watching Pacino’s face, his “heart broken”, having to decide if he will kill his own brother or not.
Do you have a gut-ripper like this? What does your POV character have to lose? What does she love? How does her inner journey and fears conflict with what the story forces her to do? How far will she go? Where’s your double bind?
- THE PAGE 1 SET PIECE SCENE
Five pages! It’s been drummed into your head. That’s all you have to keep the reader’s attention. Took you 8 months to rewrite the freakin’ thing but you’ve got all of five pages to make it happen or it’s the recycle pile for you. Terrific. So how do you stand out? Do you go for the home run and try something outrageous?
The first five pages should establish four things: World, Tone, Key Characters, and Conflict. You also know that two people talking over a table for the first five pages of the movie is not visual. It would be suicide to start your movie with a single five page Interior dialogue scene, right?
Then you watch Inglorious Basterds and watch Tarantino take not five, but ten minutes for the opening set piece…
Suicidal? Not if you can pull it off. With so many spec scripts seeking the light of day, maybe taking a risk is the way to go.
- WHY I HATE ROMCOMS
I’ll catch grief for this. Yeah, I’m a romcom hater. I’m not the only one, either…
I like what Ebert said in a recent review of the movie Couples Retreat: “The concluding scenes are agonizing in the way they march through the stages dictated by an ages-old formula. We know all four couples must arrive at a crisis. We know their situations must appear dire. We expect a transitional event during which they realize the true nature of their feelings… We expect sincere confessions of deep feelings. And we know there must be a jolly conclusion that wrap everything up.”
There’s formula and there’s formula. It’s hard to get beyond the predictability of this genre. Also, the lack of stakes…
Our heroine wants to go back for her 10th High School anniversary but has no one in her life. She hires a hunk to pose as her man so all her old high-school friends will never know the terrible truth! She falls for the hunk—of course—and consequences ensue. She couldn’t admit she didn’t have anyone in her life because, well, she just couldn’t!