“And don’t forget to punch the clock, shorty.”
Well-known scene from Oscar-winning Breaking Away screenplay written by Steve Tesich


Scene from “Metropolis” (1927), screenplay by Thea von Harbou based on his novel

Have you ever had a job where you punched a time clock? You know, a place where you punch-in with a time card when you start work and you punch-out whenever you stop working. It’s an accurate way to keep track of your work hours.

I punched a clock in my first job in high school at a grocery store, and punched another one summer in college as a driver at a factory that made boat windshields. (Punch in late three times there and you were fired.) Maybe you’ve never had such a job and maybe you have one now (or all they all digital these days?)— but have you ever punched a clock to keep track of your writing?

Screenwriter John Jarrell thinks it’s a good idea.

“Start keeping a time card. Check out the big brain on me, right? Keepin’ it way old-school — straight out of the 18th Century.

“I created a Word Doc called (wait for it) ‘Time Card’, and whenever I sit down to begin writing I type in the Date and my Start Time. Whenever I break for lunch (or any other extended and/or unexpected absence), I put down however long that took. Lastly, after a hard day’s work, usually distraught and balled up in the fetal position, I enter my Finishing Time.

“Tallying it up is simple math. Total hours spent – break time = actual hours worked on any given day.

“…Committing to keeping a time card forces me to be one-hundred percent honest with myself. About my writing. About how real my effort is. About how real I am.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro
page 218

For what it’s worth, years ago when I toured the Hemingway Home in Key West they said Hemingway when working on a novel wrote everyday between the hours of 8AM and noon. (Even if he’d been up drinking the night before—which, between you and me, I think he did more than a time or two.) Hemingway also used a typewriter and swam regularly—just like Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Taratino does these days.

P.S. The great thing about artists is they can make art out of anything—even an employee time clock.

Related post:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic (Take 2)
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0)
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock

Scott W. Smith

“When analyzing any film, two specific questions need to be asked of each beat — 1) What is the ultimate purpose of each scene? 2) What does it accomplish structurally?…There are no random beats in a great screenplay.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell (Romeo Must Die)
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro
Page 164

This ends posts the past two weeks centered around Jarrell’s book, and as a bonus, below is how he answers those two questions regarding the second scene of the David Ayer written movie Training Day.

A) Alonzo (Denzel Washington) immediately establishes the balance of power between them — veteran/new guy, strong/weak, big dog/little dog, top/bottom. This keeps Hoyt’s character off-balance from the very start.

B) Hoyt’s lackluster drunk-stop tale fails to impress. Why is this seemingly innocent exchange of special note? Because this normal, first day on the job meet-and-greet actually confirms Hoyt’s lack of experience for Alonzo.

Think Big Picture. As we’ll later learn, Alonzo has plotted out the entirety of this training day well in advance. But to make it all work, he needs a young, green cop he can fully manipulate and control.
John Jarrell

Related posts:
‘Tough Love Screenwriting’
‘Learn from the very best’
Five Must-Read Screenplays If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t seen or read Training Day, put this book down RIGHT NOW and go do it.”—Jarrell
Screenwriting with Brilliant Simplicity
‘Little Green Envelopes of Love’

Scott W. Smith

The single thing that mostly sets apart screenwriter John Jarrell’s book Tough Love Screenwriting is the more than 70 pages he spends on WGA Credit Arbitration. (With a nod to producer Joel Silver for giving him his own “Cliff Notes on Arbitration.”)

He points out that while not common, it’s not unheard of to have 50 drafts of a screenplay worked on before it goes into production and as many as 15 writers having worked on the script to one degree or another. Who are the 1-3 writers who will get credit? If contested that’s where arbitration comes into play.

(Note: Read ‘Jurassic World’ Writing Credits Dispute Goes to Another Appeal to read about an up-to-date battle.)

You can download a PDF of the WGA Screen Credits Manuel to give you an understanding of the process.

I won’t even try to compress Jarrell’s thoughts here, but he mentions in his book that he’s had three wins and zero losses over his 20 year career—and here’s why it’s so important:

“Each writer’s contract contains a credit bonus figure — the amount of additional money you’re owed above and beyond your writing fee if the project ultimately gets produced. Here’s where the plot thickens — studios and production companies only pay credit bonuses to the writers who wind up with their names officially on the film. In a nutshell, no screen credit, no bonus. Simple as that.

“These bonuses can involve mad cashish, ranging anywhere from say $5,000 to well over $1,000,000. Intense right? Keep in mind, this is ‘passive income’ — payments you get without ever having to lift a finger or write another word. The studios just fire off a fat check with your name on it.”
John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro

Jarrell calls those fat checks with your name on it,”Little green envelopes of love.”

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related Links:
Screen Credit Procedures PDF
Behind the Lines with DR: Writers Guild Arbitration Fight or Flight, Script Mag
Barry Levinson Quits WGA Over Sloppy Credit Arbitration, Deadline
The Bitter Script Reader: An introduction to the WGA arbitration for determining credit

Update 4/18/15: Just read the transcript from the most recent Scriptnotes podcast where screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin unpack How writing credits work.  Good stuff.

Scott W. Smith

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

The note card/index card method of plotting out your story has been covered a couple of times on this blog in the posts Screenwriting Via Index Cards and Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial (with video), but the “brilliant simplicity” of the technique is worth re-visiting from time to time. Today, screenwriter and instructor John Jarrell puts his spin on using notecards which he says Syd Field made mainstream popular with the 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.

Jarrell deviates from Field in that he prefers 4″X6″ cards rather than the 3″X5″ cards Field wrote about. (More writing real estate.) Jarrell says notecards are the first thing students dive into in his workshops. He goes into more detail in his book, but here’s a quick snapshot of his notecard method:

“In the most general sense, I end up with anywhere between 45 and 55 cards when cooking up a feature. Most commonly, I’ve got approximately twelve cards for Act One, twenty-four for Act Two and a final (you guessed it) twelve for Act Three. If I recall, Syd Field recommends fourteen/twenty-eight/fourteen. But since every writer fills in their cards differently, there aren’t any hard numbers to reference. I’ve heard as few as twelve cards total and as many as a hundred.

“For example, I may count ‘CAR CHASE SEQUENCE’ as just one beat, but another writer may have, say, three cards which fully flesh it out — ‘EXT. TOWN SQUARE — CARS RACE DOWN STREET’ then ‘EXT. RAILYARD — CARS SLALOM ONTO TRAIN TRACKS’ then ‘EXT. DOCKS — CARS CRASH AND SINK INTO BAY’. Whatever floats your creative boats while properly building structure is your correct method.

“…The Notecard Method hasn’t survived for over a century now because it doesn’t work. There simply isn’t a better diagnostic tool in the craft of screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro

You can pick up a pack of 100 4X6 cards for under four bucks at any Office Depot, Staples, CVS or Walgreens. A pretty cheap investment. (The 3X5 cards that Fields preferred are under two bucks per 100.)

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related post: Syd Field (1935-2013)

Related links: Index cards and 10 hints for index cards by screenwriter John August

Scott W. Smith

“For screenwriters hungry for an even deeper education, reading the actual scripts is about as good as it gets.”
John Jarrell

Why single out just five screenplays to read? Because it’s more doable than climbing WGA’s mountain of 101 Greatest Screenplays. I bet you can track the five screenplays below online and read them by the end of this weekend. (Bird by Bird to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase.)

The list below is gleaned from screenwriter John Jarrell in his book Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro and his Scriptshadow interview. He didn’t call them Five Must Read Screenplays, but what follows in bold are his insights.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Network — Pretty much the Holy Grail for screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.

Oliver Stone’s Scarface — Damn-near EVERY LINE in the film is right there on the page as Stone intended it. As badass a screenplay as you’ll ever read. 

Hampton Fancher’s early draft of Blade Runner — For pure writing’s sake, I much prefer this to the Peoples’ rewrite. It’s just more textural and evocative to me, with some slight differences that I really enjoy. A magical script in my opinion.

Kevin Walker’s Seven — The greatest serial killer movie ever written, and one that’ll never be equaled.

David Ayer’s tour de force Training Day offers us a world-class example of plotting… From Page One/Line One, there’s a jaw-dropping level of screenplay awesomeness taking place here. Exactly what makes Mr. Ayer’s script so outstanding?
—The world is thrilling, fresh and unique.
—The villain is exceptional.
—The plotting is wicked sharp.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t seen or read Training Day, put this book down RIGHT NOW and go do it.

Have a good weekend.

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Update: Ambrose Chapel just made your search for those five screenplays easier by posting all five scripts at this ScriptDrive link. (Though you have to signup to be able to download scripts.)

Related posts:
‘Tough Love Screenwriting’
‘Learn from the very best’
‘Network’ Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing Good Bad Guys
‘What it means to be a screenwriter’ —Robin Swicord

Scott W. Smith

“You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.”
Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in Bullitt (1968)

“Here’s the deal — Continually educating yourself by viewing the very best scripted films in history is every bit as important as knowing what’s crowding today’s multiplexes.”
John Jarrell

Screenwriter John Jarrell spends a part of the time in his 400+ page book, Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro, on anecdotes based on his experience in the film industry. And part of the time he offers specific advice on how to improve your screenwriting skills and film knowledge. Here’s one example of his practical and affordable to do advice:

“When it comes to working up your own projects, my suggestion is to always try and learn from the very best examples found in any given genre. These are the handful of legendary lighthouses staggered across a largely blasé cinematic coastline, existing in perpetuity to help guide aspirants in a variety of insightful ways.

“Here’s a practical example of how this tracks. You decide you want to write a cop movie. The three cop films generally accepted as the modern cornerstones of the genre are Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Bullitt. Educate yourself by screening the ones you feel might best inform your script (personally, I’d watch them all). Late ’80’s Lethal Weapon defined the modern day Buddy Cop flick. Throw that on your list, too, if you haven’t already seen it. Yeah, these grey-haired classics may be older than your Dad, but age is not the focus here — structure and superior storytelling are.”
Screenwriter & instructor John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related posts:
How to Watch a DVD
‘Study the old masters.’—Martin Scorsese
Learning from Others (Tip #42)  Frank Darabont says that while making The Shawshank Redemption he watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas every weekend for inspiration.
Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman (The French Connection)

And speaking of learning from the very best, three of my favorite Screenwriting from Iowa blog posts feature insights from writers Michael Arndt, John Logan and Elmore Leonard.

1) How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
2) The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
) Overnight Success

Scott W. Smith




“Making a living writing movies is a privilege, something that’ll come hard- earned, if at all. Hollywood doesn’t need you, doesn’t give a sh** whether you live or die, and nobody — and I mean NOBODY — is gonna cry if your Tinseltown dreams don’t come true.” Screenwriter John Jarrell (Romeo Must Die) Jarrell-Tough-Love-Screenwriting-A Screenwriter and instructor John Jarrell’s book Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro is not a feel-good read—but screenwriting is a hard business, so this book is meant to toughen you up for the battle. By his own admission, Jarrell is a “less nurturing version of Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.”

So along with the occasional swipe at soccer moms, hipsters, trophy wives, smartphone spawns, and malnourished Millennials (with a Goodfellas-sized amount of f-bombs), Jarrell offers his screenwriting insights ranging the importance of using notecards to WGA Arbitration. I’ll spend the next week or so pulling some Jarrell quotes that’ll give you a taste of the book, and I hope you find useful in your own writing.

“One of the finest character descriptions I’ve ever seen is found in Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Identity. It’s of Chris Cooper’s C.I.A. character Chester Conklin — ‘Ivy League Oliver North. Buttoned down. Square jaw.’ How’s that for specific? Eight words tell us everything we need to know — the first four alone putting it in the hall of fame.”
John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting,
page 240

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related post:
Character introduction (Tip #71) from Michael Arndt
Descriptive Writing-P3, Characters (Kasden, Cody, Cameron)
Bourne Again The Six-Word Screenplay (And Hemingway’s six-word novel)
Tony Gilroy’s ‘Rules’
Scott W. Smith

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