Getting Emotional

In screenplays, and books as well, story is driven by Character and not by plot. It is the characters choices he/she makes when presented with obstacles, that makes up story.

This being said, I was reading (at work, sorry boss) a short snippet of an article about specific scripts and writing screenplays, where a word came up that got me thinking. That word is EMOTIONS.

Bottom line is that we are all driven by emotions (some more than others). We all have needs/goals we want to accomplish. We go about our lives trying to accomplish… stuff. But what influences us and, what ultimately drives the decisions we make are our emotions.

When watching a movie or reading a book, as soon as we are emotionally drawn into a character and the situations they get themselves into, we become invested. We are hooked. A good natured, down on his luck character who is faced with horrible things that have fallen upon him or her, but shows qualities we all love in people, you, the audience wants to root for that character. When a character is a crapper of a dude that does horrible things to other people, we want that guy to get what he deserves. The audience is drawn in. Or, when a character is always up beat, has a better job than you think you deserve, and nothing but good things happen to him or her, you are actually happy to see, or at least emotionally engaged, when a little (or a lot of) hardship falls on that character. The answer to this is that we want to feel emotions.

Getting back to screenwriting… Novel writers are given an open book (so to speak) to dive into background of their characters (remember character drives story, not plot). The novel writer is allowed to describe, in great detail, page after page, everything thing we need to know about the characters. How and why they got to this place they are now in their lives, where and why they live in a certain house, city or neighborhood, what happened to them personally and how they feel about these things that they have gone through. We find out all the important stuff about their family and friends prior to the setting and time of the novel. It is just unfair.

Unfair, unfair… Unfair. It is just UNFAIR. Screw them novel writers (I’m not crying).

Screenwriters are just not able to do this. We the audience drive down to the local theatre maybe once every couple of weeks for 2 hours, and we watch characters on screen wanting stuff to happen to them. We want as much packed in those 2 hours as possible. It is up to screenwriters to do just that… make every scene count. The only way to do that is to set up a need/want of the main character, present obstacles, throw in a couple surprises, and finish the story. The only way to do that is dig down deep into the audiences’ emotions.

A screenwriter has to be able to give you enough background, but not enough background because that would be boring. A screenwriter has to make the audience understand why you should want to follow him or her on the journey in just a handful of scenes. A screenwriter has to pack as much as he or she can in as little dialogue as possible. And, most of all a screenwriter must make the audience care about the main character from scene to scene, all the way to the end.

Here comes the little machine walking across the page… WALL-E. This movie is the prime example of the importance of emotions in screenplays. In the first third of the movie, there is no dialogue but, by the time Wall-E goes to save EVE, the screenwriter has tugged on your emotions. We, the audience, want to follow and cheer on that little garbage compacter. We want him to be happy and we want ourselves to be happy in those 2 hours before we go home.

Now I have to figure out how I can put more emotions in my screenplays.

Back to work.


Billy Wilder

I recently had a friend tell me that they liked the movie “Sunset Boulevard”. It was a huge coincidence since I just watched that brilliant movie the night before. I had to comment on why Billy Wilder, one of my idols, has influenced me and so many other writers. He was so amazing.

Billy Wilder, whom I consider a poet of words and a master of the story, remains as influential to writing screenplays than ever before. In the world of genre writing where we are today, Mr. Wilder was able to cross genre boundaries with such amazing ability and mastery. If you take three of Mr. Wilder’s movies he’s penned, “Sunset Boulevard”, “The Apartment”, and “Double Indemnity”, you can see a writer who can reach many audiences. He is a true story teller.

In watching the first 20 minutes of “The Apartment” staring Jack Lemon and Shirley McClain, Mr. Wilder was able to get you, the audience to fully understand, within a simple scene, Jack Lemon’s character, C.C Baxter. You see him come home to his apartment after work, go into the kitchen, make a TV dinner and, eventually, see him land in front of his TV where he barely misses his favorite shows (end of show/or commercial). It is not a huge fact finding scene full of drama or dialogue, but it gets the audience into the characters world, immediately.

In a more dramatic sequence of events, Mr. Wilder is able to do the same thing with Shirley McClain’s character, Fran, a perky elevator attendant. She tries to commit suicide (a pretty racy choice for a 1960 comedy) late in the first act. Although these two things are the opposite in tragedy, there is symmetry between the two main characters. In a way they are both in need, and missing something, in their life. Mr. Wilder makes you understand just what these characters are going through, what they are going to get into, together, and he does this with many laughs throughout. It’s just brilliant.

*** If you like the TV show “Mad Men“, watch this movie.***

“Double Indemnity”

This one of the genre, Film Noir, is at the top of that movie category. Unfortunately for many actors who passed on this role, Fred MacMurry (one of the most underrated actors in the history of film who was also brilliant in “The Apartment”) was amazing playing Walter Neff. What was more brilliant was how Mr. Wilder, in this genre of big roles and over the top performances, made Walter Neff, who does such terrible acts, into a character the audience will root for. He was able to make the audience care about him, trusting that he will get away with what he does. You know, in the first scene, where the main character will end up and you want to take the journey with him. All of the usual plot twists in Film Noir are there, but you leave more than satisfied. “Double Indemnity” doesn’t get the credits it deserves.

“Sunset Boulevard”

A broke screenwriter, not able to get work, finds himself in the driveway of a fifty year old actress. She takes him in and gives him things he is not able to refuse. The bad thing, for him, is that he ends up loving this crazy actress. He is given many ways to get out, but he always ends up in her old mansion full of wealth and hardship. He fights between the world he found himself in and the world where he can’t catch a break. He gives up on a life he wanted (as a writer) with a young woman, who is the antithesis of the old suicidal and worn out actress he lives with. He chooses the old woman where he ends up paying for his choice.

If you place “Some Like It Hot” with these three screenplays that reach three (maybe four) distinct audiences across three decades, it is easy to see how much of an influence Mr. Billy Wilder has had on the writing community. In the past thirty or so years, no one has been able to achieve the mastery Mr. Wilder was able to do.

Thank you Billy Wilder and thank you, my friend for making me remember just how brilliant this man was.


A Spec Writer

I continue to write about the process, knowing that no one is listening. If I sold a screenplay tomorrow, I may receive a few emails. This blog would be "blowing up". I know this, knowing that no one is reading the words behind the words I'm writing now.

There was not a Charlie Kaufman before there was a "Charlie Kaufman". Even Charlie Kaufman would say that Charlie Kaufman didn't exist before Charlie Kaufman (watch/read "Adaptation" or his latest screenplay).

As a writer who's serious about writing screenplays, I read or listen to as many things, written, or spoken about screenwriting and writing in general. You, like me, try to do what "you" do with passion. I do this passion of mine, sharing every step with you.

I may never receive a dime for my writing. I may continue to write this blog with no one reading my words. But I know this...

I will continue to write...


That Word!

"I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” ~Emily Dickinson

It Must have an Ending?

As I listened to the commentary track on “True Romance” (written by Quentin Tarantino), I was captivated to hear that, before getting this, his first screenplay made into a movie, that Mr. Tarantino had started to write several screenplays (“about 30“) which were never finished. Being a fan of Quentin, I empathized with him (I must be a good writer, I do exactly what he did; I understood what he was going through). Shoot, as him, I too have several great ideas. I can start with this scene… then the reader will get… and then (as I write each scene), the character will do this. This will not only be cool, but… then I stop. I fight against the sensible voice in my head that tells me to stop, that this will never work. I work on my screenplay until it is finished.

The problem, as Mr. Tarantino would go on to say…

“I had written a bunch of scripts… but I never finished any of them… I always got to about page thirty… it was more of a situation… when I read (especially ) screenplays, the problem is… is, it was more, like, I wanted to write a script more than I necessarily had a burning story to tell.”


Flash forward. It’s over a year later. I had not only finished my very first screenplay, and then, in the middle of my second (I went on to write 2 rewrites of that nonsense) I thought to myself, this is not working. With my head banging against my computer, looking for the scene and/or the dialogue to match my original thought of this character and the first scene I saw in my head, I grew crazier and crazier.

Go backwards. I finished reading the book “Screenplay” by Syd Field. It is, basically, the bible of screenwriting, the first one of it’s kind. The first thing that jumped off the page, as I read it, was that he was adamant that you had to know the ending of your screenplay before you started to write it. Nonsense, I thought. What is “fun” about writing a screenplay if you know what the ending will be? (I ignored his advice)

Go forwards, a little… I’m deep into this (writing screenplays) now. I have finished my first screenplay, and working on my second. I will finish it, and go on to my third.

Then, the next book on writing screenplays that I’ve bought into. Not even thinking about the sound advice Mr. Field had written about, I get hooked on this book. The writer talks about theme and structure. He even goes on to, and get this… that you know the final scene of your screenplay.

FORWARD to TODAY… I am currently working on my forth screenplay (over 75 pages into it), after a few short and long fictional stories, realizing that I really don’t know where I’m going with this screenplay, I’m beginning to believe that I have fallen in love with writing screenplays instead of writing stories that had to be told (that “burning” Tarantino talked about).
………………………… Is there a story out there that I NEED to tell?

Crap, maybe there isn't.


Written By... Writers snubbed in Oscar coverage, once again

With the Oscar nominations coming out this week I was looking forward to see who was nominated for Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay. Man was it frustrating.

First place I go to is It takes me several seconds to find out the nominees. Not because I looked at the actor categories, but because I had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page past the technical categories to find out the writing categories. Okay, fine.

Now knowing the nominees, I look for more stories regarding the Oscars in general. In this weekends USA Today paper, there were 3 articles regarding the Oscars. There was not one mention of anything that had to do with writing. Are you serious?

Now, the internet. There’s gotta be some article (not in Screenwriting/Writing magazines) about the Writing categories. AOL, nothing. Newsweek, nada. I look into smaller news outlets. Crap. More of nothing.

Guess what Clooney, DiCaprio, and Winslet fans? Those actors wouldn’t be who they are without the stories and dialogue that come from those people that sit in front of their computers or writing pads, locked in a small room with maybe one other person, punching out scenes, fretting over dialogue, character arc and development, until finally (after several months) they come out with a story written in screenplay form. Not to mention the team of writers on set of the movie that are continuously working on scenes on the fly. Oh, yes, those actors. They have input as well. They are the ones that have to believe in the character those writers created, all the while making suggestions that those writers will have to change and make everything else in the screenplay work.

John Travolta? Do you remember those awful, baby talking movies? He was fading in obscurity until some writer by the name of Tarantino created that cool character, Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. All those movies with John Travolta after his role in Pulp Fiction (1994) may not have happened without the writing of Quinten Tarantino.

Does anybody remember Mickey Rourke? You know him now because Robert D. Siegel, the writer of “The Wrestler”, with the direction of Darren Aronofsky who demand that Mickey Rourke play the part, made his comeback possible.

Richard Jenkins. I’m sure everyone knows who Richard Jenkins is by name. As you watch the Oscars, you will see Richard Jenkins and remember him in all those small roles he played in movies, and TV shows that are not on air anymore. He and Mickey Rourke will be seen in more movies, playing bigger roles, because the screenplays for “The Visitor” (written by Thomas McCarthy) and “The Wrestler” were written.

No Respect!


To form

This is not a secret, but all movies follow a structure, Acts I, II, and III with one event that takes place between each of those three acts. It’s like clockwork when watching a movie. Based on how long that particular movie is, a certain event will happen (internal or external) to the main character within in five to ten minutes of those three acts.

Obviously there are several things that go into this, but scripts that turn on those three acts have been made into movies for decades. So, why is it so hard to write a good script. You know something has to happen by page 15, 30, 45, 60, 75 (a page = 1 minute on screen) . You watch, as I do, several, if not all movies that follow this, but yet we struggle to get it.

Furthermore… after reading an article in one of the many magazines I read about writing for the screen, there was an article about writing spec TV shows that sell. Without going into detail, I got out of it that TV shows (depending on the genre) not only follow a similar structure as movies but they are way more polluted with (because of the whole commercial thing) with more breaks and hooks. At the end of the article, it basically says that if you don’t follow these structural rules, there isn’t a flying chance in hell that someone will buy your spec (This doesn’t take into account all of those thousands of writers that do understand this).

The ending of this story is that, without structure, the script is dead on arrival (if it ever gets to someone's "desk"). And if there is that necessary structure to the screenplay, that doesn’t mean shit because your writing could make the script reader fall asleep or don’t care by page five. This means, what happens on page 30, 45, 60, and 75 will never be read anyways.


Winter… the Season to Write

Just coming home, after going to a basketball game (Blazers won), I flip on the TV to see what I DVR’d that day. I am happy to see that I recorded the newest episode of “Big Bang Theory”. Knowing that I love that show, I am quick to change into my most comfortable sweatpants, press the play button, and prepare to enjoy the TV show, knowing that I could, with a smile on my face, turn the TV off when it was over, and go to bed. Soon I realize that I also recorded the last episode of “24“ and “House“. Maybe I can squeeze them in as well.

I promised myself to commit to as much writing as I could after the last TV season ended, but I find myself going back to the TV to watch another quality show (damn them networks and the 100+ channels I have). I think I 'm doing “research” but I soon realize I 'm not doing what I should be doing, working on my current screenplay, the many short stories I started, or the spec TV show I first thought about last year.

I ignore the many characters that were talking to me when I woke up, at lunch, and when I was doing laundry, for the instant gratification of TV. We as “wanna-be" writers need to put the remote down, go back to those damn people in your head, and work, but we don’t (at least I don‘t).

Today, as I waited for the last spin cycle at the local laundry mat, I read an interesting article in the January/February 2009 Creative Screenwriting magazine about the movie “Grand Torino” (written by Nick Schenk). It is a good movie and one of the few spec (if it wasn't a true "spec" I'm sorry, don't sue me) scripts that was sold and made into a movie last year, staring Clint Eastwood. Upon reading the article, I found an interesting quote that made me think that I could turn off the TV and do what I should be doing… writing.

This is what I read, “I’ve seen four episodes of Friends,” Shenk says. “I’ve never seen an episode of 24 either, and it’s because I have something else to do and something else to think about. Writing is such a great thing because it’s creative and you always have something to think about.” As for the lessons Schenk learned in the long period before his two sales, that answer is easy: “Don’t quite”. (quote directly from Creative Screenwriting)

As I laugh at the current joke in the most recent “Big Bang Theory” I realize I should be doing what Nick Schenk was quoted in the magazine - turn the darn TV off, realize I made a mistake of watching TV, and WRITE.

(Oh! That was funny)

Tomorrow could be different, but it is my Monday at “work”. I will be presented with real problems with real people. Maybe, after work, and between the Tuesday line up of TV, I can actually do what I should be doing (what I‘m passionate about) - writing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the first African American will be sworn into office as the President of the United States tomorrow? I’m sure I can turn that off. (Tuesday, January 20th = another day of not writing). If only that darn President Elect spent his formative years watching TV instead of doing what he had passion for, I could actually write.