It's Write Stuff time again, and what a crazy time to be a writer! As I'm sure you've heard, on Cinematical and everywhere else, the Writers Guild of America has officially gone on strike. There's not much I can say on the subject that hasn't been better said already-- check out great statements from writers Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield) -- but I am in complete and total support of the strike.
This isn't rich people trying to get richer, as it may seem to a casual observer. Only a handful of writers command the incredible salaries you read about on sites like this one. This strike is about writers wanting only what is fair, now and into the future. Writers get no respect these days. Even a casual film fan can name hundreds of actors and 20 or 30 directors with ease, but how many screenwriters can they name? Plain and simple, without screenwriters those actors have nothing to say. Those directors have nothing to direct. Movies and television would cease to exist, unless The Bachelor 38 is your idea of quality entertainment. These are working people just like anyone else, a Hollywood area code doesn't change that. Their demands are far from outrageous, and it's time to give these talented men and women the respect they deserve. You can find me on the picket lines this week.
Moving on to less stressful matters, let me pop open the old mail bag for three questions from commenter Jim...
Your new series is so timely for me. I am finally starting my first screenplay.
1. What conventions of style and structure should I follow?
As far as style is concerned, your style is what defines you, I can't help you there. But you do have to make sure you're following basic formatting rules. Don't spend all of your writing time trying to figure out whether to use (Cont'd) or (More), but visually, your script should look like other scripts. Take a recent screenplay you admire and use it as a guide. "Recent" is the key there, formatting rules change often. If you're serious about getting into screenwriting, it is imperative that you purchase a screenwriting program. These programs will handle much of the formatting for you. I use Final Draft, and pretty much every screenwriter I know does as well.
As for structure -- there are no set rules, and tinkering with structure will probably make your script a lot fresher and more exciting. That said, it's pretty much essential that your script has a conflict (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. self, man vs. machine...), or else it will likely not hold the interest of your average reader/writer. Set a goal for your hero (Marty McFly needs to reunite his parents), raise the stakes and create a lot of obstacles (Biff Tannen, Mom is sexually attracted to Marty, Dad is a putz, etc), and then either have your hero reach that goal (happy ending), not reach that goal (sad ending), or something in between -- maybe he or she doesn't reach the goal but learns something in the process. No matter how bizarre screenplays get, 99.9% follow some variation on that formula.
2. What books or other resources do you recommend for novices?
There are literally thousands of books on the subject, and with a variety of focuses. I just read Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV, by Pamela Douglas. It is an excellent primer for just about every aspect of television writing. As far as books on writing for film, The Screenwriter's Bible is a great guide and deals with formatting questions a lot more than most books on the subject. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need may not live up to that claim, but it does contain loads of valuable information. For a more personal take on screenwriting, I'm a huge fan of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and its "sequel," Which Lie Did I Tell? Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and Misery, so he definitely know what he's talking about, and he's very funny. (He co-wrote Dreamcatcher too, but let's not hold that against him.)
3. How does one make contact in the business? Is it strictly networking or are there other avenues?
Networking is a huge, huge part of it. You pretty much have to know people, or know people who know people. If you've got an alcoholic cousin who once shared a cab with Scott Baio, call him up. No connection is too small, and you've got to start somewhere. Start looking online. Write fan letters. Make some calls. Don't get discouraged. Eventually, you'll meet someone who can help. And when you do, make a friend and don't stop. Get a job in the entertainment industry as a production assistant or an intern. It may not be glamorous, you may think you're above it, but pretty much every non-rich person working in "the biz" got his or her start at the bottom. As I've mentioned, New York and Los Angeles are going to be the two best areas for this. You might not want to live in LA, but you don't have much choice if you sincerely want to break into screenwriting. You're not going to bump into Al Pacino at an Omaha Dunkin' Donuts.
Although I do think "Al Pacino at an Omaha Dunkin' Donuts" is a great idea for a sketch. "I want a...BAKAH'S DOZEN BABY! GIMME ALL YOU GOT!!!"
Thanks for reading, and be sure to keep watching Cinematical for updates on the WGA strike. Here's hoping for a quick resolution. And if you haven't, please check out my little contribution to honoring great writing: "My Seven Favorite Screenplays of the Decade." As always, if you want your question answered, hit me up in the comments or at my personal site. Write on!