Welcome back to The Write Stuff, Stuffers! Hope you found last week's interview helpful and entertaining. Adam's closing thoughts coincided beautifully with what I had planned for this week's post. A lot of you have questions about getting an agent and making contacts, and that's all important and we'll get there. But a majority of you just want to know how to come up with an idea and get started. Read on...
1) Watch a ton of movies and read a lot of scripts.
Sure, you watch a lot of flicks already, but you need to become an active viewer. Ask yourself questions. Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist? What does the lead character want? What obstacles are standing in his or her way? How does he or she overcome them? What are the characters saying in a given scene? What are they thinking? Are these two different things?
If you're watching a comedy and it makes you laugh, how did it make you laugh? Whether it's sparkling dialogue or a kick in the balls, there's an art to it. Are you scared watching a movie? Why? Cheering the climax of a film? What got your fist in the air? See what I'm saying? And you can learn something from every film, good or bad. If you're watching a movie that sucks, why does it suck? What did this screenwriter do wrong? If it's a thriller and you're bored, why are you bored? Once you pinpoint it, you'll know what to avoid when you sit down to write your script. Try it with the next movie you watch -- really watch, and ask yourself questions.
And even better, get yourself some scripts. They're available all over the internet and at most libraries. How can you write a script if you've never read one? Study your favorites. This will help not only with story construction but also formatting, which we'll get to in the coming weeks.
2) Write what you know, play to your strengths.
You've heard this one before, and there's a reason. Write what you find funny, dramatic, or interesting. Ask yourself "What makes me special and unique?" I'm not getting all Stuart Smalley on you here, it's a valid question for a writer. Let's say you just came out of a three year relationship, and you're miserable. Perfect. Use it! So much great art comes from pain. Chances are, all you're thinking about is him or her anyway, so funnel that energy into a script. You don't have to write about your relationship specifically, because frankly, it's probably boring for others to hear. Just examine your feelings. Find yourself driving past her house every night? Explore what's pushing you to this behavior, and use those emotions. Write a dark comedy about obsession and heartache. Write a thriller about stalking. The more personal or emotional or dark the feelings you use in your writing, the stronger your material will be. If you're feeling that way, rest assured that millions of other people are too, or have in the past.
What if you want to write a horror movie? Hopefully you've never been chased around by a dude with a chainsaw. How are you supposed to "write what you know " then? Simple -- think about what you would do, what you would really do, if you were being chased by Leatherface! It seems like a lot of screenwriters don't ask themselves these basic questions, and that's why horror movie audiences have been yelling "Don't go back in the basement, you idiot!" for decades. Put yourself in the shoes of your characters. Does the way they're reacting to the events around them ring true?
And play to your strengths. If you sit down at your computer and write a conversation that looks like this -- "What's up?" "Not much." "What are you up to?" "Nothing." -- dialogue is not your strong suit. If you imagine huge, elaborate, creative shootouts every time you step into an elevator or parking garage, you should be writing action. The key is figuring these things out early, so you don't waste time. Oh, and if you're not funny, don't write a comedy.
3) Find your voice, and find your characters' voices.
Knocked Up was such a beloved, successful film because it felt true and real. It's refreshing, isn't it? Their world becomes a second home to you, those people become your friends. That is a movie with a strong "voice." Finding your voice and honing your style is key to shaping your writing and getting you noticed. I can listen to a random 30 seconds of a David Mamet script and know he wrote it. Same goes for people like Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Smith, Woody Allen, and Quentin Tarantino. Whether you like those guys or not, they have established strong, clear voices, and that's what sets them apart in their field.
It can be tempting to simply repeat what has been successful in the hopes of selling your script ("I know, I'll write The Fifty Year-Old Virgin!" "I'll do Funeral Crashers!"). But that's how we wind up with so many drab, unoriginal movies devoid of personality. It's fine to be inspired by other films, but make sure you're coming at it with your sensibilities and not theirs. And if you're going to rip something off, rip off something good!
4) Write what you like.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it's not. Sometimes I catch myself writing a comedy scene that I know wouldn't make me laugh if I saw it acted out. Guess what? If you're not laughing -- no one else will. You've got to love what you're writing, you've got to be passionate about it, or you'll lose interest real quick. Are you a huge baseball fan? Why not write a baseball movie? There's certainly a market for those. What frustrates you about other baseball movies? Figure that out, then write what you've always wanted to see, not what you have seen a hundred times. Have you laughed out loud at a fart joke recently? No? Then don't put it in your comedy script just because everyone else does. Be different. Be true to yourself and your tastes.
5) Keep your eyes and ears open and carry a notebook.
Get out in the world and have some life experiences. Any time I'm feeling uninspired, I get out of the house. Take a little notebook and a pen with you everywhere you go. Yes, your friends will tease you. Screw them! I can't tell you how many times I've thought of a joke or line of dialogue or movie idea that was so great I just knew I'd remember it when I got home. Guess what? I almost never do.
There are script triggers all around you, and once you realize that, you'll see them everywhere. Everyone you know and come in contact with is fair game. People-watch. Eavesdrop. If you want to write a movie about an 80 year-old woman, talk to an 80 year-old woman! Even a ten minute conversation with her will make your script so much more real and true. If you're writing a movie about four best friends, figure out your relationships between your friends. What makes you guys laugh? How do you play off each other? How do your conversations flow? The next time you're having a great discussion with your pals, remember it. Jot it down. Analyze it.
If this all seems like a lot to deal with when all you want to do is sit down and start writing, it is. But taking the time to really think about what is important to you, what makes your relationships tick, what you find funny or sad or scary -- that is what is going to make your material stand out and strike a chord with others.
Really start to do these things in your everyday life, and I guarantee you'll find yourself with one or more movie ideas you love for the next Write Stuff tip column in two weeks. And as always, shoot me your questions, either here or on my personal site. I intend to answer every one of them. Good luck, and happy writing!