Thursday, December 9, 2010

Joe Eszterhas on Writing Your Story

Joe Eszterhas is one of the most successful screenwriters of the last two decades. Here are his thoughts on the process of screenwriting.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Screenwriting Tips from Screenwriter Susannah Grant

Susannah shares some tips on dialogue.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

The Most Popular Type of Screenplay

What do Avatar, The Godfather, The Devil Wears Prada, Finding Nemo, Casablanca, Chinatown, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, When Harry Met Sally, Gladiator, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sleepless in Seattle, The Matrix, No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Kite Runner, Million Dollar Baby, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Shrek, Dances with Wolves, Titanic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Citizen Kane, Wall-E, Pirates of the Caribbean, Slumdog Millionaire, It's a Wonderful Life, Rocky and A Christmas Carol all have common? 

They are all based on the story-telling and screenwriting framework known as The Hero's Journey, or the Monomyth, as delineated by Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949.  

Campbell studied myths from different cultures that have lasted for thousands of years and believes that they all carry common threads that touch us on a deep level. Hundreds of successful  movies, many of which won the Oscar for best picture, employ the template of The Hero's Journey.

Many successful novels have also benefited from this template, and the screenplays based upon them were made into wildly successful movies, such as No Country for Old Men, The Godfather and Q & A (Slumdog Millionaire).

Although you may think that using a template constricts creativity, the wide variety of films listed above should convince you otherwise.  You would be hard-pressed to convince untrained observers  that all of these movies are essentially the same story, but they are. And yet they're not. That is part of the beauty and magic of this template.  You can tell so many different kinds of stories with it. 

What makes them different are the characters and their situations, their overall goals, the setting, the obstacles, pacing, themes, the surprise elements, plot twists, approaches to creating suspense, the dialogue, use of humor or lack of it,  the genre and more.

So what is The Hero's Journey?  It is essentially a series of progressive steps, experiences and changes  that the Hero undergoes in an attempt to solve the main story problem. Please be aware, lest the PC police are reading this, Hero is not a gender-specific term. It is an archetype. It represents a focal point in the form of a person, male or female, for the story. The Mentor, such as  Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, is also an archetype, and is also found in many of the best stories. 

It is also important to note that the journey, though often a physical one, such as in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, can also be an internal one, such as the character arc of Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Andy in The Devil Wears Prada.

Many of the best screenplays employ both inner and outer journeys. The bottom line is, if you want to be successful at screenwriting, you may want to study and master The Hero's Journey.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why Characters Need to Be Different from Each Other

Because conflict is the key element in any form of story telling, it is important to make sure your characters are different in significant and minor ways. Characters with differing world views, attitudes, values and modes of operation offer a wealth of opportunities for  conflict.


The by-the-book cop partnered with someone who thinks the rules are merely suggestions meant to be broken.

A neat freak living with a slob.

A night owl married to an early riser.

A penny pincher and a compulsive gambler.

A daredevil into extreme sports and a fearful homebody.

These are just a few examples of character couplings with built-in conflict possibilities. 

Not only will these characters have a natural conflict simply by being in each other's presence, they will disagree about how they go about solving problems and achieving the major goal of the story.

Take a cop story, for instance. Say one character wants to bust the drug ring by carefully building a case, while the other want's to bust in with guns blazing. Great conflict.

Having two or more characters who want to achieve the same goal together, or for an even greater level of conflict, two wildly different characters who are, for whatever reason, forced to solve the problem together, can create several levels of conflict.

So when starting your next story, create characters who will naturally conflict with each other. It can lead to great story telling.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie Dialogue Vs Real Speech

Movie dialogue is supposed to APPEAR TO SOUND like real-life conversation without actually BEING like real-life conversation.

Most of what people have to say in a particular real conversation is not that interesting to other people, only certain elements are. If any.

All of the dialogue in a film or TV show is supposed to move the story forward, so limit it to the meat of what you want to impart to the audience. Make it sound they way people talk in real life but without all the usual fluff, extraneous information and tangents.

Think of dialogue as Talk Light, only with much more meaning and drama. Or humor.

Enough said?

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Avoid the Second Act Blues

The second act is the longest of the three acts and for most people, the hardest to write. It's easy (usually) to come up with the beginning of a story and the big climax, but what do you do in between? This is where many stories bog down.

One thing you can do is keep in mind that every scene in your movie must move the story forward and in the second act, you need to keep increasing the tension and conflict. You must continually increase the stakes until a "showdown" is inevitable.

Yet at the same time, right at the end of the second act, things need to be at their worst for your protagonist. Often this is done by having your hero experience their "dark night of despair," when everything seems lost and or they have lost faith in themselves.

This is how you build a second act. When you construct it this way, the contrast between the dark low point and the climax will make the ending much more satisfying for the audience.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

10 Keys for Turning Your Book into a Movie

Here's an article I wrote on adapting a book into a screenplay that got syndicated on a screenwriting how-to website.

I hope  you find it useful. Click Here to read it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Distinctive Dialogue

 Each character should have their own voice, that is, a distinctive way of speaking that reflects who they are as a person. Each thing they say should be so distinctive that only they could have said it in your story.

A cynical, mature college professor from New York city will speak differently than a naive freshman from the Midwest. 

A down-on-his-luck carpenter will speak differently than a real estate tycoon, even though they're in the same industry. They will have different vocabularies and attitudes. Someone who is positive, on top of the world will say things that reflect his world view. The same is true for the carpenter who is worried he won't make the mortgage.

One problem with many newbie scripts is that everyone sounds the same and just about anything they say could be said by any other character.

Make your characters SOUND different, distinctive and you're on your way to a more sellable script.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Don't Novelize a Screenplay

One of the mistakes that beginning screenwriters make is the tendency to "novelize" in the descriptive passages.  That its, they use the methods found in novels. For example:

When John looked at Allison he remembered all the other women he had been with. Some had hurt him and some had loved him. But he was willing to continue trying to make it work with her.


When Mary looked at the boat, she realized  it was the most beautiful one she had ever seen. She knew she had to have it, even though it was out of her price range.

How can you possibly show those things on the screen?

A screenplay can only contain what the audience can see and hear on the screen. Unlike the novel, you can only reveal character and backstory (history) through action and dialogue.

This is the challenge. To take what you know about your characters and reveal it on the screen, ONLY through action and dialogue, without resorting to long passages of one person describing themselves and their history. Boring and amateurish.

Let's look at how you might handle John's situation. Please note, the following are NOT in proper format.


Allison's remark stings. John hesitates before replying, then he looks into her cold eyes.

I never thought you'd talk to me that way.

What? No woman has ever talked to you that way?

No, that's happened before. More than one said something like that.

So now we're all evil harpies?

I didn't say that. Some were very kind -- like Judy.

I told you not to bring her up again.

I don't love her any more. I love you. And I'm
willing to try again, to make it work with us.


Allison's last statement also reveals something about the couple's past -- John's past relationship with Judy is still a sore point with her.

So as you're adapting your book into a screenplay, look out for the places where you might tend to "novelize" and instead use screenwriter's methods of revealing information.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Powerful Images & Story Telling

 Watched Kurosawa's "Ran" last night, which is a retelling of King Lear in feudal Japan.

One thing that I like about his directing style is his striking use of images, especially the countryside and sky. They become almost a character in the story, much as John Ford did with the American West.

One thing I don't like with "Ran" is that the director seems too removed from his characters, both visually and internally., He's using one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, but most of the characters seem one-dimensional. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Should You Outline First?

To outline or not to outline, that is the question. There are two schools of thought.

Because screenplays must adhere to a three-act structure, in a limited amount of pages, many writing coaches advocate creating a complete outline first.

Then there is the other school, which includes me, that takes a more free-wheeling approach.

Whenever I try to outline a story, it seems to block the flow of ideas. I like to start with an idea, with a general sense of the characters and see where it takes me. Many writers prefer the free-flow of ideas and the freedom of using an idea when it hits them.

Tolkien said at the beginning of the Rings trilogy, "The story grew in the telling."

Bottom line, there is no right or wrong way, there is only what works for you.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

How to Write for Independent Movie Companies

No matter how much we love movies, it's important to remember that the operative word in Show Business is Business.

Movies cost a lot of money to make. A LOT!

And the more characters, extras, scene locations, special effects and so on that your screenplay has, the more expensive it will be to produce.

If you want to have your book turned into a movie, it is often easier to break in with the smaller, independent companies.  But one reason they are smaller is that they have access to less money than the big studios do. So anything you can do to lower the cost of making a movie out of your book, the  better.

For example, having a lot of locations in your story increases the cost of production. It's very expensive to move around the actors, crew and equipment from place to place. It also increases the number of days necessary for shooting.  Many indie companies rent cameras, booms, props, etc. The more days they have to rent them because of moving around, the more expensive the production becomes.

One way to decrease the cost is to reduce number of locations in your screenplay adaptation. For example, if your story has a couple that fights a lot -- in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the living room, etc., consider having several of those altercations occur in the same location.

Think My Dinner with Andre vs Avatar.

The former had two main characters and if memory serves, a single location.

Now think about Avatar -- huge cast, lots of characters, state-of-the-art special effects, a huge crew and some very ugly monsters. Those monsters don't work for union scale, either. They want top dollar.

So if you're thinking of approaching an indie company with your adaptation, you might want to consider dinner for two.

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