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“Let’s talk about something important…coffee’s for closers only.”
Alec Baldwin’s character in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

“During my time as a studio executive at MGM, I had over three thousand pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars, and producers would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. Most of the time, ideas are pitched poorly.”
Stephanie Palmer

giarbook.png

Are you good in a room?

I mean can you convey those great ideas in your head (or in your script) to group of strangers sitting across from you? Have you thought about how you’re going to connect with them and get them excited enough about your ideas to actually pay you money? That’s what this blog is all about as we interview former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer as she offers advice on how you can improve your chances of selling your screenplay.

As I’ve said before, I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog a couple of days after seeing the movie Juno and hearing the unlikely story of its screenwriter Diablo Cody. (Who happened to go to college in Iowa and is now known as Oscar-winning Diablo Cody.)

But another piece of the puzzle was writer Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I think Blake’s angle on screenwriting is the most refreshing I’ve read in the last decade.

He also has a blog (www.blakesnyder.com) and that’s where I learned about Stephanie’s new book called Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience. Her book is directed toward helping screenwriters, but the book also applies to many business situations.

Stephanie was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions regarding her experiences in Hollywood and I think you’ll find them helpful in your journey.

1) How does one go from being born in Des Moines, Iowa to working on the biggest money-making movie in history (Titanic)?

Thanks so much for asking, Scott.  I’d have to say a combination of luck and hard work.  No one in my Midwestern family worked in Hollywood and I grew up in a house without a TV.  However, I read as many books as I could about the business, went to a great university and then started as an unpaid intern getting coffee, making photocopies and running errands.  Eventually, I worked my way up.  Titanic was just the beginning, but it was an incredible way to start.

2) You went from an unpaid production assistant to MGM Director of Creative Affairs. How did your degree in theater prepare you for that journey?

Well, I didn’t make that jump in one move.  I worked as an assistant for a couple years at Bruckheimer Films and at MGM, though I was given a rare internal promotion from assistant to executive.

In terms of how my theater experience prepared me for the executive side of the business, I think it helped me tremendously.  Many movie executives have backgrounds in business and finance, and sometimes, expertise in these areas is crucial.  However, I think that experience in storytelling is just as valuable.  My theatrical training helps me understand the challenges that creative people face.  With my knowledge of plays and experience directing and producing them, I have a wider body of knowledge to draw upon when developing a script or solving a production problem.

3) Carnegie Mellon has a long tradition of actors in Hollywood, did you find that being from Pittsburgh actually helped you after you moved to LA?

Being part of a network is always important, and so is having perspective.  Certainly, graduating from Carnegie Mellon put me in touch with previous graduates, one of whom helped me get my first job.  So that was incredibly important.  As well, coming from Pittsburgh, I was steeped in a culture that was more down-to-earth.  So when I got to LA, I had some perspective on the insanity.

4) In your time at MGM what did you learn that surprised you most about screenwriters?

How unprepared they were for meetings.  The fact is that the skills and talents required to come up with a great idea are different from the skills required to present it.  However, the skills that allow you to pitch effectively and with confidence can be learned by anyone.  I’ve seen the most shy, awkward people become good in a room—not because they transformed their personalities and became charismatic extroverts—but because they practiced the right techniques and developed their own style.

5) Now you have a consulting firm and have written a book called Good in a Room. Why is it important for a screenwriter to be good in a room if they’ve written a solid script?

Even great ideas don’t sell themselves because decision-makers generally don’t just buy scripts.  They invest in people who have great ideas.  Selling yourself is crucial to the success of your project.  When you sell something, you will be asked to make changes, adapt to new circumstances, and work with people whose opinions may differ from your own—for at least a year, if not more.  Therefore, before saying “Yes” to you and buying your script, the decision-maker needs to know if they like you, trust you, and can rely on you during the challenging process of making a movie.

6) A question that every writer outside of LA is interested in is “How does one get in the room in the first place?”

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different routes by which people have been successful.  Consider the story of Juno, where the writer of the script (Diablo Cody) was found by a producer who was just surfing the web, came across her site, and asked her if she’d written a screenplay.  To borrow from the cliché, she wrote something great and the world beat a path to her door.  I have seen that happen many times.

Of course, not every great writer gets discovered.  These days, to get in the room, at some point, you have to go where the meetings are actually happening.  This means… and I hesitate to say this… living in or near Los Angeles.  In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.  Everyone else needs to be ready to jump on opportunities when they happen.

I know that not everyone will want to move to LA, and it doesn’t seem fair to require it.  Why can’t you just write something fantastic and sell it?  Because studios and production companies aren’t just investing in your idea—they’re investing in YOU.  And if you’re not local, the perception is that you are not as committed to career as your competition.  It’s much more challenging to fulfill your function as part of the creative team.  Plus, you will have a harder time building your network and developing the relationships which help you get into the room in the first place.

7) Any closing advice for the writers in Iowa, India and other places beyond LA?

No matter where you live, you can develop your craft and learn how to present your ideas effectively.  One way to stay current is to subscribe to my free online newsletter, where twice a month I’ll send you a quick tip to help you refine and hone your meeting technique.  You can sign up at www.goodinaroom.com.  That way, when you do get that big meeting, instead of hoping that your script will do all the work (like most writers), you’ll confidently present both yourself and your ideas.  That’s what being good in a room is all about.


POSTSCRIPT
After I first posted this blog I heard from a writer in Minneapolis who was discouraged by Stephanie’s comment about screenwriters having to live in or near L.A.  Stephanie also said that, “In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.” It’s fair to say it makes the odds a little tougher on the L.A. outsiders if you go the studio route.

But there are other people around the country–around the world–who are writing and making films outside that system so don’t be discouraged. In fact, read my blog titled “Screenwriting from Ireland” that talks about the movie Once.  And this is as good a time as any to pull out a nugget I’ve been holding for the right moment and now seems as good as any.

Early in this blog I mentioned screenwriter & Save the Cat author Blake Snyder.  I asked Blake a while back if he had any encouraging words for screenwriters outside L.A. and here’s Blake’s response:
“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

And the LA Times just reported that Brad Ingelsby, a 27-year-old who lives in the Philadelphia area with his parents and sells insurance for his father, just sold a script for $650,000 against $1.1 million. And just for the Midwest fans, the movie is set in Indiana. (I first learned about the Philadelphia sale via a helpful screenwriting site called mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com.)

While selling insurance, I bet Ingelsby learned a thing or two about being good in a room. And, hey, if money is what drives you…I’m pretty sure the average insurance salesman makes more than the average screenwriter.

STEPHANIE PALMER helps creative professionals who want to perform better in high-stakes meetings, set up projects, secure financing, and receive better assignments for more money.  As the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, she acquired screenplays, books, and pitches and supervised their development, including 21, Legally Blonde, Be Cool and Agent Cody Banks.  She has been featured on NBC’s Today, CBS’s Early Show, NPR, and in the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Good in a Room: How To Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience

Related Post: Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“My psychological state when I start a screenplay is always the same. It’s a mix of fear, anxiety and insecurity.”
Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner (A Beautiful Mind)

“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky (Network)
Three-time Oscar winner

How do you start your story? Something must happen to set your story in motion. Some call this an inciting incident, a hook, or a catalyst.  When this event or situation happens it disrupts the life of your protagonist. It sets them on a quest.

It must be a dynamic event. An event that rocks their world and one in which they must fight to correct. And most of the times the inciting incidents are easy to spot.

Juno finds out she’s pregnant (Juno)

E.T. misses his ride (E.T.)

The Italian Stallion is chosen to fight for the championship (Rocky)

A shark eats a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement  (Jerry Maguire)

Zack Mayo signs up for officer training (An Officer and a Gentleman)

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed (The Fugitive)

Miss Daisy wrecks her car (Driving Miss Daisy)

Charlie Kane dies just after saying “Rosebud”  (Citizen Kane)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

Thinking she’s getting engaged her boyfriend break-ups with her (Legally Blond)

Charlie Babbit’s gets news that his dad is dead (Rain Man)

Nemo is captured by fishermen (Finding Nemo)

The war happens (The Pianist)

A Helicopter is shot down (Black Hawk Down)

Ferris takes the day off (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Will solves a difficult mathematical equation (Good Will Hunting)

The oven breaks on Thanksgiving day (Pieces of April)

A special bike is stolen (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

A law grad takes an offer for what looks like the perfect job (The Firm)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

Boy wishes that he was bigger and wakes up a grown-up (Big)

A farmer hears a voice telling him “If you build it he will come” (Field of Dreams)

“As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”

David Mamet (The Verdict)

Two Oscar nominations

Often inciting incidents boil down to the worst things that can happen in your life:

Divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Murder (Witness)

Illness (The Doctor)

Shooting victim (Regarding Henry)

Plane crash (Castaway)

Financial Crisis (The Perfect Storm)

Quitting a job (Lost in America)

Taking the perfect job (The Firm)

Aging (City Slickers)

Dying (The Bucket List)

Kidnapping (Ransom)

Natural Disaster (Wizard of Oz)

Recession (Indecent Proposal)

Things that make newspaper headlines on a regular basis. They are headlines because they get our attention. What’s the old newspaper expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

These all set the story in motion. Like a boxer’s one-two punch they often have a set-up & payoff:

Jerry Maguire writes mission statement—gets fired.

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed—he’s charged with murder—he decides to flee bus wreck and track down killer.

Miss Daisy wrecks car—Hoke is hired to be her driver.

The shark attacks the girl—the sheriff finds her body, well, an arm.

Charlie Babbit’s dad dies in Rain Man—he learns he’s out of the will, well, he gets the car and the award winning rose bushes, but not the millions he hoped for.

Ferris takes the day off—Principle wants to catch him skipping school

Someone has to hear Charlie Kane say “Rosebud” or there can’t be the quest to find out what it means. (Never mind that nobody is around to hear the words actually being said.)

You could argue that if the girl dies in the ocean without being discovered then the case is written off as a drunk girl drowning, so which is the inciting incident? But let’s not get hung up on technical things or we’ll say the beer is the inciting incident…or the moment the beer was bought. Chalk it up to a cause and effect. Find your inciting incident and get on with writing your story.

If the inciting incidents doesn’t happen then the movies doesn’t happen. Writer Skip Press asks, “Will this event put my main character on a path to his ultimate goal from which there is no turning back?”

Sometimes this event happens in the first scene, but usually within the first ten pages, and always within the first act. Syd Field notes that in studying Joe Eszterhas scripts he noticed, “In most cases…the inciting incident was a cinematic tool he used to set up the story from page one, word one.”

If you’ve ever found yourself watching a movie and wondering when it’s going to start the cause is usually too much time was spent setting up the inciting incident. The moment needs to come when it will have the most impact, but in our ADD culture it’s hard for viewers (and studio readers) to wait too long for the inciting incident. Over and over again that’s why you will hear about the importance of the first 10 pages of your script. It sets the tone of your story, and gives us an indication of who the characters are and what they want.

The inciting incident must happen on screen and it must be dynamic. It gets our attention and the attention of our protagonist. If our protagonist doesn’t react to this then you have no movie.

The climax of the film will be tied into this inciting incident. Think of them like bookends that hold your story in place. Rocky is picked to fight Apollo Creed and the climax is occurs after the fight is over and he’s still on his feet.

An inciting incident arouses a desire in the protagonist that he or she is willing to go to the end of the line to get. Rocky can’t say, “I don’t even have a locker. I’m a bum. Maybe if I can get into shape.” Well, he could but it’s a different movie.

Your audience wants to know what your story is about. They have paid money to be entertained. And they want to watch your characters wrestle with life issues. Because that’s really why we go to movies. To watch human drama be lived out in a way that helps us with our own human dramas.

So your inciting incident is what sets your protagonist in motion.

“The overwhelming majority of stories are based on a need, a problem, or an unusual situation.”

Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny)

Oscar & DGA nominations

“Find a character who’s obsessed and you have a real driving line.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)
Oscar winner

P.S. If indeed Rocky’s inciting incident is Apollo Creed picking it fight him, it is one of the latest inciting incidents ever—it comes around the 33 minute mark.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”   Syd Field

Today is the first day of spring and that signals a change. (Not so much here in Iowa, because the forecast is we’ll get 2-6 inches of snow tomorrow.)

If you’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay why not begin today?  This blog is on structure and is a fitting place to begin.

The more scripts you write and the more movies you see the more you’ll understand structure and why it’s a vital part of screenwriting. I’m going to limit this blog on good old western culture traditional structure. You don’t get more basic than this:

Act 1 – Beginning

Act 2 – Middle

Act 3 – End

Syd Field became the modern-day screenwriting pioneer when he wrote Screenplay back in the 1974. Field had been a reader and development executive at various studios and after reading 10,000 scripts he felt he really knew what made a good script.

He even broke it down into page counts.

Act 1     1-30  (setup)

Act 2     30-90 (confrontation)

Act 3     90-120 (resolution)

There’s nothing wrong with a script coming in between 90 and 100 pages either. He’s how a 100 pages script might look like:

Act 1       1-25

Act 2      26-80

Act 3      81-100

Now if this were the sixties I could hear someone saying, “Hey, man, that’s just not my scene.” But these things aren’t written in stone either.

Sure we can look at many films like Memento which turned structure upside down, and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia that mixed structure up. And let’s not forget about the famous quote by Goddard “I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end — just not in that order.”

How do I answer those? Let me start with the Goddard quote. According to Lew Hunter who later asked Goddard about his famous quote it was simply an off-hand comment at a cocktail party.

As for the film exceptions? It is hard enough to write a solid screenplay, get an agent, and get the film made. The concept of a beginning, middle and end are universal because that is the way most of us of our lives;

We wake up

We eat

We go about our work or school

We eat dinner

We recreate

We go to bed

We’re born, we live, and we die.

Throughout history that is the cycle civilization has lived. Humans around the world have also made sure that life is not predictable. Love, war, new inventions and discoveries help ensure that within the human tradition there are millions of variations.

Traditional structure is the most understood form of storytelling which is one of the reasons it is the most commercial as well.

It’s as basic as one writer said; Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks and him and get him down. That’s structure 101.

Many screenwriting books have different ways of breaking down structure but here’s a common one that Robert Mckee has landed on based on the people that went before him:

1) Inciting Incident

2) Progressive Complication (Rising Conflict)

3) Crisis

4) Climax

5) Resolution

If you can understand those five areas of structure (one for every finger one hand) it will save you some frustration. We’ll look at these in detail at another blog, but for now it’s enough for you to understand that this structure fits most successful films. (Even if you want to flip structure inside out it’s best to understand structure. Check out Picasso’s early paintings to see what I mean.)

There is always that rebel in us that says. “I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done. I want to do my own thing man. I want freedom!”

But keep in mind what poet Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”

There is freedom in structure. Embrace it. When the limits are set, great things can happen. Performing within certain boundaries helps us understand the greatness Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and LeBron James.

Think of all the structure that goes into:

Making Movies. The script is written and then budgeted. Actors are hired who you want to show up on time. Sets are built and props are found. Cameras are rented and crews are hired. Caterers cook food. Drivers drive trucks. People work, people get paid. There is a lot of structure in place to make a film.

Making Music. Before a concert becomes a reality many logistics have to have taken place. Travel arrangements, tickets sold, money transacted, bathrooms working, electricity flowing, stages constructed, lights hung, usher in place, security in place, green M&Ms in place. There’s a lot of structure there. So you can smile the next time a lead singer screams for anarchy because that’s the last thing he wants at his concert.

There really is freedom in structure.

“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing is like carpentry.” Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter (Alien)

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet compares ignoring structure to the countercultural design movement in the 60’s:

“I was a student in the turbulent sixties in Vermont at a countercultural college. In that time in place, there flourished something called the Countercultural Architecture. Some people back then thought that the traditional architecture had been too stifling. And so they designed and built countercultural buildings. These buildings proved unlivable. Their design didn’t begin with the idea of the building’s purpose; it began with the idea of how the architect “felt.”“As those architects looked at their countercultural buildings over the years, they may have reflected that there is a reason for traditional design. There’s a reason that doors are placed in a certain way.

“All those countercultural buildings may have expressed the intention of the architect, but they didn’t serve the purpose of the inhabitants. They all either fell down or are falling down or should be torn down. They’re a blot on the landscape and they don’t age gracefully and every passing year underscores the jejune folly of those countercultural architects.”

David Mamet

Because I want to hammer this point home take a look at the cars you see today. Cars could be made with three wheels or five wheels but most cars are still made with four wheels because engineers and car builders have decided that is what works best.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood (Iowa painter, American Gothic)


ideas.jpg

“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling
1901-1994
Nobel Prize Winning American Scientist

Where do creative ideas come from?

Katie Couric once asked Jerry Seinfeld where his funny ideas came from and he said, “That’s like asking where trees come from.”

 

I hate to disagree with Seinfeld, but I think a better answer is ideas come from everywhere.

Here’s the formula that I’ve come up with; A+B = C.  There doesn’t that help? (Can someone pass that along to Jerry?) This is how Seinfeld connects things: “Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time?” Basic, funny and original.

People that are a lot smarter than me call it dialectical logic. That’s when you connect two unrelated things. A+B= C is simply the result of something new after we’ve connect two unrelated things.

When I was a kid there was this commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where a guy comes around the corner eating peanut butter from a jar (like we all walk around doing) and another guys from around the other corner eating chocolate and they run into each other. The one guys say, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” and the other guy says, “Your peanut butter is in my chocolate.” But they try the PB/Chocolate mix and both decide it’s good.

A (peanut butter) + B (chocolate) = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (By the way, that’s why these blogs are so long because I keep making connections.) My goal is make them shorter.

Illustrator Gary Kelley says, “Creativity is connecting influences.” If you go into his studio you’ll find a menagerie of art books and torn out photos from magazines that are there to inspire him. Sometimes he tapes them to his easel.

Creativity is not something that only a few mystical souls can tap into. (Granted the quality of the Seinfeld’s creative ideas is what sets him apart.) Nor is it just limited to the arts.

The story goes that back in the 60’s when a couple guys bolted a sail to a door and made the first windsurfer and became very wealthy from their new invention. Thomas Edison’s inventions were the results of lots of creativity–as well as a lot of trail and error.

Another story goes that the founder of the zillion selling “Dummies” books was in a bookstore and overheard a guy ask a salesperson, “Do you have a basic book on computers? Like computers for dummies.”

(This story has been disputed. As they say, success has many fathers.)

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Many of us are guilty of saying, “if I could just head to the beach or the mountains and just get a little place without all the day-to-day distractions then I could really get some ideas down on paper. No kids, no work issues. No people problems. Just a place of nirvana were the my creativity would be free-flowing.”

There’s a word for that—fantasy. And being from Orlando originally I can tell you that’s not Fantasyland. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at Disney World about kids, work issues and people problems. (Speaking of Fantasyland, does anyone else miss Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?)

There was an episode on The Andy Griffith Show were Andy wants to be a writer and he get the typewriter and the cabin in the woods and he’s ready to go. As soon as he tidies up the place. It’s easy for writers to find reasons not to write.

After I go to this seminar…

When I get a new computer…

When I get that new software…

Then I’m really going to start writing. I’ve done all those things. I also used to buy pants a little tight because I was going to lose a few pounds. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You need to go at inspiration with a club? Okay, but how do you do that?

“In action, there is power, grace and magic.” Goethe

You simply start writing. It may just be notes on a paper, but it’s a start. (I like Vicki King’s book How to Write A Screenplay in 20 Days because she pushes you to write.) It may not be any good. It probably won’t sell. (Though Stallone says he wrote Rocky in less than a week.) But you will learn a ton about writing and yourself. And it will give you confidence for the next script.

Musician Jimmy Buffett said on a 60 Minutes interview, “I’m not an every note kind of guy, I’m a capture the magic kind of guy.”

When you start writing you are taking those first steps toward capturing the magic.

The creative process is hard to explain and hard to show on film. But the movie Pollack with Ed Harris has a wonderful scene where we see the spark of creativity that became Pollack’s signature style. He’s in the process of painting when he accidentally spills some paint on the canvas and he does it again and then again. He has an epiphany, and it happens not while he’s reading a book on painting, but while he’s painting.

Creativity is a messy process. You’re going to get paint on your shoes. But you will make discoveries in the process.

A great example in the photography world is Ansel Adams. Adams was a brilliant photographer though it took decades of photographs before the world came to understand that. He would often go into the mountains with a donkey carrying his large format cameras and would often camp out to watch what the light would do.

He is known particularly for his early photographs in Yosemite National Park, but one of his most famous photographs is called Moon Over Hernandez.  He captured that photograph late one afternoon while driving in New Mexico. By the time he pulled over and set up his 8X10 camera the light was fading fast and he couldn’t find his light meter so he had to guess on the exposure. His experience paid off but he was only able to take one shot before the light was gone on the cross that grabbed his eye. It is one of his most recognizable photographs.

He had a firm understand of his craft so he could recognize and opportunity when he saw it. He captured the magic.

Stephen King says that a writer he is like a paleontologist. He sees something interesting buried in the dirt and he goes over and brushes away the dirt. He’s unearthing stories.

What is important is to write down what you find. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was asked how he came up with so much material and he said that three funny things happen to everybody everyday, he just writes them down.

One real estate expert says the secret to his success is “Always be looking.” When you need to find a deal on a house over the weekend it’s difficult. But if you’re always looking there’s a good chance you’ll find a good investment.

You need to cultivate looking for ideas. It may come in an article you read, a person you meet, or seemingly out of no where. Think of it like filling a blender with things that interest you. You mix it all together and out of the overflow comes your original ideas.

It is all about discovery.  Recently I heard on the radio a fellow talk about what it’s like to re-enter the world after being in prison for years. He said when you first get out you’re in sensory overload. Colors are more vibrant; you hear sounds more clearly. He said when he first got out he wanted to run to people and say, “Do you see those colors?” His senses were alive.

Keeping your senses alive to the world around you heightens your experiences and makes you feel alive.  And when our sense are alive we are more likely to be creative (idea-prone) because we are making new connections.

“ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

Or A + B = C

“An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost

A + B = C

Arthur Koestler: wrote a whole book on the creative process and says this: “The Creative act…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

 

Stephen King writes, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

The more you have in your brain to select and reshuffle, the more creative you will be. My favorite quote in regards to this comes from a creative giant of our day Apple & Pixar’s Steven Jobs:

“Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”

Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver once thought he could write a screenplay with Bob Dylan but realized he couldn’t because while most people think in terms of one, two, three, A, B, C and Dylan thinks in terms of One, blue, banana. ( So in Dylan’s case it may be 1 + Blue + Banana = The Times They Are a-Changin’.)

Just a different way of connecting the dots. Like that fellow in A Beautiful Mind with his string connecting letters in newspapers. Although that’s a result where the mind goes into the realm of bizarre in making connections that aren’t healthy.

But I love the scene in Jerry Maguire after Jerry has been fired and he stands before the entire office and asked who is coming with him on his new venture. No one moves. His secretary says she’s close to another pay raise. Total embarrassment for the Tom Cruise character. He’s humiliated so what does he do? He turns to the fish tank and says “The fish are coming with me.”

And the fish become a motif throughout the film.

Chances are if you asked the screenwriter Cameron Crowe how he came up with that scene he wouldn’t know. But he captured the magic.

Pieces of April was written by Peter Hedges (who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa by the way) and is a story about a wayward young girl who wants to make amends with her family as her mother is dying of cancer and she wants to cook dinner for everyone at her small New York City apartment.

As her family drives in from the suburbs her oven breaks and her single goal in life is to find away to get the turkey cooked so it doesn’t turn into another family disaster. It’s a wonder film. Hedges said he heard a similar true story years ago and connected it with his mother dying of cancer.

So when you hear a story or have a thought that strikes your fancy write it down. Your own background and twist on life will give it originality. Juno was not the first unplanned pregnancy movie in history or even of 2007. But Diablo Cody’s slant gave it originality and that originality was what earned her an Academy Award. (Though I must add that just because your ideas is original don’t expect it to always be that well received.)

Cody has said in interviews that she doesn’t know where the idea for Juno came from. You can control the influences you put in your life, trying to force results is moving beyond the veil of mystery.

If Grant Wood really did get his best ideas while milking cows it could have been the regular, mundane, repetitive work that was the key.

Julia Cameron writes about this in The Artist’s Way. She quotes Einstein as having asked, “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” She said Steven Spielberg claims some of his best ideas come while driving on freeways. Many writers, (like Hemingway) have been regular swimmers and others (Stephen King) have been walkers. All activities that seem to stimulate creative ideas.

Musician Jack Johnson hits the waves as he told Rolling Stone magazine (March 8, 2008), “You’ve got to fill up your mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After awhile, the songs just start comin’.”

One person who often tops many people’s “most creative” list is comedian Robin Williams who is an avid bicyclist. That is an artist brain activity that fills the brain with images. One of the things that makes Williams fun to watch as he does improv is the rapid fire way his brain makes connections. (He is not only unusually gifted, but many people forget that he was trained at Julliard.)

An excellent book on ideas is How To Get Ideas by former advertising art director Jack Foster. And the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld shows the hard work of making funny connections as we watch him develop fresh comedy material.

Your creativity comes out of the overflow of the people, places, and things you pour into your life. So be curious and connected. Fill your blender with influences and the next time you need a creative surge remember the simple formula A+B=C.

If that doesn’t work try milking a cow.

Photo & Text Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?

Don’t be silly, of course it can.

When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.

For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.

Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:

“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call whatever goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)

Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a shoe smith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.

How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.'” That’s a passion for learning.

Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.

Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and a filmmaking workshop or two.

Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.

And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.

And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)

“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer,” says Natalie Goldberg.

There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt.  A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.

Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
John Steinbeck

Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.

Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (Tootsie)

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Here’s the straight story. There are many screenwriting gurus out there and I thought I’d warn you about them. Actually, I just need to warn you about your addiction to them.

Back in November I was doing a video shoot in the Bay area and the fellow I was interviewing said he had a friend who worked at George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who might be able to give me a tour if I was interested. (Is there a reason I wouldn’t be interested?)  I took the photo of Yoda at the ILM headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco a couple of hours later during my Forrest Gump-like experience. Who doesn’t want a wise and powerful mentor to help guide them from the dark side? The trouble is always knowing who to trust.

A couple of years ago I spent seven months of my life producing real estate and financial infomercials. As far as infomercials go, these were big budget fares that were well done.

I’ve had worse gigs and definitely ones that paid less. It was a good experience as I worked with a talented group of people and learned a ton of production techniques. A common question my friends asked about the shows I was working on was “Are they true?”

Well, they weren’t really false, but they didn’t quite tell the whole truth. For instance the sound bite you heard on TV was, “I made $10,000 on my first deal.” What was edited out was this guy explaining how it took him two years to put together his first real estate deal. Another fellow said it was not uncommon for him to make 100 lowball real estate offers before one got accepted.

Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef.  Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”

Most of my work was focused on the success stories. Two-minute vignettes that showed how a person or couple used such and such products and became wealthy. In the business this is called a zero to hero story. (I have that in a folder of potential titles for a future script.)

A zero to hero is someone who was down on their luck, went to a seminar or ordered books and audio products and applied the principles and in a short time became wealthy. Who among us doesn’t yearn for the magic formula?

The history of this in our country goes way back to Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in St. Augustine.  Come to think of it, in another time and place weren’t Adam and Eve just looking for a little more knowledge?

Infomercials have a tremendous failure rate and the ones that do succeed focus on just a few categories:

1)Kitchen & Cooking (George Forman Grill)

2)Beauty & Fitness (Chuck Norris and the Total Body Gym)

3)Self-improvement (Tony Robbins)

4)Making Money (Rich Dad, Poor Dad)

5)Leisure (Time –Life Music)

Basically they touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.

Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer.  Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.

There may be a kernel of truth in books and seminars (my blogs are intended to pull out those kernels for you) but the fact is if you are reading or searching more for the secret of writing more than you are writing then you are heading down the wrong path.

John August the screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and a Drake graduate here in Iowa) wrote this on his website blog , “The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.”

Robert McKee who wrote the book Story is the main screenwriting guru.  On his website he lists the number of major award winners and nominees who were his former students. (Of course, he taught at USC so many professors there could make the same claim. And those that have been to his workshop, I imagine have learned from other guru’s workshops and books as well.) But his advertising materials imply that he is the reason for their success and if you attend his class you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your Academy Award.

After all,  didn’t one of his students Akiva Goldsman do just that? Well, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind does credits McKee’s class with helping him make the transition from novelist to screenwriter. But the fact is Goldsman has a MFA from NYU and was, by his own admission, a failed novelist for 10 years. And if he started writing as a teenager he probably had many teachers who he learned from, but more importantly he was writing. (Getting in his 10,000 hours of education and practice long before he took a three-day seminar with McKee.)

There’s a glaring problem in respect to gurus and I’m not the first to point it out. Take McKee for instance, he’s not only not won an Academy Award he’s never had a feature screenplay of his produced. Ever. Zero. If it was all formula you think he’d have had one hit movie made in his lifetime.  McKee’s is an academic and people with Ph.Ds are analytical by nature. McKee is brilliant in telling students why a film works. Many critics can do so just as well, they just don’t have the theatrics or business acumen that McKee has to become a screenwriting guru.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that McKee is a bad writer or that he hasn’t sold any scripts before, or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just stating a fact and making an observation. With McKee there is a disconnect, a gap between what he knows and what he’s done. (I’m sure if one of his feature scripts gets made, he’ll die a happy man. But then again, if it’s not a good movie it could damage his whole legacy.)

August writes, “To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has. Wherever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use some cleaver word like “counter-theme.”

McKee does such a through job of breaking down Casablanca you think that its writers attended his seminar, until you realize the movie was made before he was born. He also does a several hour breakdown of Chinatown.

“I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was,“ August continues on his blog, “That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.”

That is the fundamental difference between successful screenwriting gurus and successful writers. It’s like the engineer who builds the car and knows how it works and the race car driver who takes that engineering feat and does something amazing with it. But there is a tension there, and it’s rare to find a person who can do both well.

In fact, if you took the five top screenwriting gurus you might find five produced films between them. Maybe. And of those five films, you would have five films that were little known and/or poorly reviewed. That’s why they’re doing seminars, because there is more money to be made teaching this stuff than writing screenplays. (Or more nicely put, their real gift is in teaching.) And the flip side is even if the working screenwriter took the time off writing to do a seminar the chances are it wouldn’t be very good. (Joe Eszterhas has been a screenwriting box office rock star, but I’d recommend McKee’s book Story over the one Eszterhas wrote to help screenwriters (The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood).

In the book Screenplay; Writing the Picture (Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs) make this observation:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

 

And screenwriters learn those practical techniques in a class, seminar or book and if that teacher finds a larger audience he or she becomes a guru. It’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t kid your self into thinking that the guru is the answer. Writing and rewriting is the answer. If you forget that you are lost and can become dependent on a guru…and then the next guru.

 

McKee is so popular in some circles he could form a cult if he wanted to. Americans love gurus. I’m a fan of business guru Tom Peters, marketing guru Seth Godin, and even McKee himself.

I attended one of McKee’s first public seminars on screenwriting. The year was 1984 or ’85 in Los Angeles. (Back when he was a guru in training. And back when he didn’t just read from his book as I hear he does today.) I was a recent film school grad, working as a photographer, and studying acting and hungry for my break in the industry and didn’t blink at the cost that at that time equaled a week’s salary. In fact, I still have the tapes from that seminar and have listened to them many times over the years.

McKee’s insights into screenwriting were more articulate than anyone I had ever heard speak on film. It is a class that I recommend to this day, but it’s best if you have at least a script or two under your belt. Because there is a danger there. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”

Speaking of gurus did you see where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died earlier this month?

He was famous for (temporarily) being the guru to the Beatles in the 60’s and bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to this country in the 50’s.  Few people realize that in 1974 he started a college in Fairfield, Iowa that is still there today.

Fairfield is one of the most interesting places in the US. Mother Earth News called it one of the “12 Great Places You’ve Never Hear Of.” The article said, “Your image of southeast Iowa probably doesn’t include the world’s premier ayurvedic health spa, more restaurants per capita than San Francisco or 25 art galleries on the downtown square but these are some of the many features of Fairfield, a surprisingly sustainable and cosmopolitan town.” (It’s also about an hour away from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop that keeps coming up on this blog.)

Fairfield is also home to Hawthorne Communications whose founder Timothy Hawthorne literally wrote the book on infomercials. After I moved to Iowa and was looking for production work there I naturally met with Hawthorne. No work came out of it but he was kind enough to give me a copy of his out-of-print book “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing”  that he told me was fetching $125. on ebay.

And to bring this full circle back to movies, David Lynch was a follower of the Maharishi and makes occasional trips to Fairfield. I’m sure there is some connection there and his directing The Straight Story featuring Richard Farnsworth as an elderly man who drives a riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. (Watch that film again and ask yourself how Lynch’s practicing TM for 30 years effects that material. And I dare you to watch the Catholic-influenced Koyaanisqatsi in the same night.)

There is no doubt that Lynch is an artist and one of America’s most original filmmakers. The “I am not an animal” scene from The Elephant Man is one of the most moving scenes recorded on film.  From the first time I saw Eraserhead in a college film class my perception of what movies could be was altered.

But I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that Lynch’s work at times can be a little hard to understand.

I believe enough in cross-pollination to think that a trip to Fairfield might do McKee some good and if Lynch could sit though McKee’s seminar it might also do him an ounce of good.  I’d pay to watch those guys in a room debating story structure and the roll of screenwriting gurus.

By the way, anyone interested in employment or an internship at ILM check out this section of their website: www.ilm.com/employment.html

Photo and text © Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” That’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (Casablanca) “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump

Glory

Deliverance

The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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