Archive for June, 2010

Unk was my inspiration to blog. So blame him.”
Mystery Man on Film

Way back in June of 2006 I’m not even sure I had indoor plumbing yet. My cell phone looked like Gordo Gekko’s. Some of you weren’t even born yet. Yes, four years is a long time in this new digital world. But that’s when UNK went online with his screenwriting blog, Unknownscreenwriter.

I didn’t start looking at screenwriting blogs until late ’07 and there were three that stood out to me; Mystery Man on Film, Blake Snyder, and UNK. Blake died last year, and there are recent reports that Mystery Man is no longer with us making UNK one of the longest continual blogs on screenwriting. He doesn’t blog daily like Scott Myers over at Go Into The Story (or yours truly) but over the past four years he as amassed quite a collection of solid and informative posts.

I’m personally thankful for UNK and all those early blogging pioneers who paved the way starting back in the good ole’ days of  ’05 & ’06. (I think in 2010 there are more screenwritng blogs than Elvis sightings. The goal isn’t to read them all, but find a couple that inspire you to improve your writing. )

And like Mystery Man, UNK’s true identity is unknown. We don’t know where he comes from, what’s his background, or what he’s written. I personally like to think he’s from Nebraska because it fits my angle here. Google UNK and first up is the University of Nebraska Kearney’s because their website is http://www.unk.edu —and you know how screenwriters like to sneak stuff in. Just look at what those commie screenwriters did in the 30s-40s-50s. Not that UNK is a communist, of course, just looking for clues.

What we do know about UNK though is he spent some time in California, but now lives a quick plane ride outside L.A. in either New Mexico or Arizona. UNK is rather blunt and has a fondness for dropping f-bombs, but it’s all part of his gruff charm.  It’s easy for me to imagine UNK, Blake and Mystery Man all sitting at a table playing poker. There’s refined and cultured Mystery Man in a suit looking like Tom Wolf and smoking a Cuban with a brandy snifter in his right hand, there’s Blake in his trademark blue button down Oxford shirt drinking a Pepsi, and there’s UNK drinking a 24 ounce can of beer, looking a little like an aging surfer crossed with Oscar Madison, and cussing up a storm as he rants about some recent exchange he had with a 16-year-old Hollywood executive.

I could be wrong, but that’s how Unk comes across to me. Either way, he’s an interesting character to throw into your mix of screenwriting blogs if you are unfamiliar with him. You can learn a lot there. His posts on transformational arc are gold. Back in Dec. ’09 UNK wrote a post called  You Don’t Make Me Feel and addressed the majority of scripts he reads these days, “Did you get so caught up in creating some kind of WHAMMO every ten pages that you forgot to elicit some kind of emotion from me?”

Unfortunately, that applies to not only many unproduced scripts but to too many films that jump through all the hoops to get produced and distributed.

Happy anniversary UNK.

Scott W. Smith

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”If you don’t have any real feeling for the suburban middle-class life, and if you didn’t have any sense of that time, (The Wonder Years) wouldn’t make sense.”‘
Neal Marlens
Co-creator of The Wonder Years (set in the late 60s/early 70s)

I’ve finally decided what I’d like for my birthday this year—a complete Blu-Ray set of the TV program The Wonder Years. There’s one problem, it doesn’t exist. I have no idea why, but that’s what my research tells me. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) I image it has to do with ancillary music rights which weren’t covered when the show was created in the 80s. Couldn’t find much online  either about the co-creators of the program, husband and wife writing team, Neal Marlens & Carol Black.

Marlens and Black not only created The Wonder Years but Growing Pains and Ellen so it’s surprising there isn’t more about them online. The quote below is from  The New York Times and is just about the only thing I could find about the show from one of the creators.

”We’re caught inside the sensibilities that we grew up in, so we come by it honestly and without judgment as to whether it’s good, or it’s bad, or it’s yuppie, whatever. To write from our experience and to write our experience is to write to the audience that’s out there…. we’re writing what we enjoy and what’s interesting to us, and that’s what the audience is liable to like.”
Neal Marlens
NY Times interview in 1988 with Peter J. Boyer

Marlens’ predication came true. The first show aired right after the 1988 Super Bowl. After only six shows it found its way into the top ten. It won an Emmy for Best Comedy that season. For whatever reason Black and Marlens left the program after writing 19 programs. But The Wonder Years held on to its audience and ended up running for six years and lived in TV’s top ten programs the entire time.

Here’s the last voiceover of the older Kevin (Daniel Stern) from the final episode of The Wonder Years;

“Things never turn out exactly the way you planned. Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next you’re gone, but the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a house like a lot of houses, a yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years I still look back in wonder.”

I’m not sure who wrote those words, but I always believed that the producers, directors, writers on The Wonder Years always did an excellent job of capturing an era. Of a sense of time and place. A time of dreams fulfilled and opportunities missed. They captured simply growing up, which resonates even if you didn’t grow up in a the suburbs.They captured what one of my producers friends says is the most important thing to capture in a movie, documentary, or TV program; “Life.”

I image half the writers out there have at least written a coming-of-age story, I know I have. It was actually the first (and only) script I ever wrote where someone told me it made them cry. An interesting side note to that is an agent once told me that script would never get made because I didn’t have an adult lead. I had never thought about that, but I did realize that similar  stories all had some adult leads (Stand by Me, Sandlot, Bad News Bears, Big, My Dog Skip). Maybe the next re-write I’ll include a role for a now grown-up Fred Savage and tap into the whole Wonder Years vibe—and audience.

P.S. If anybody has any links on how the producers/writers approached writing each show please send them my way.

Scott W. Smith

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The origins of the classic hand game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” are unknown. But what is known is its popularity is undisputed and universal. There are even RPS contests and leagues around the world.  In fact, the World RPS Society has cash prizes and a world champion every year. Online you can find all kinds of websites, t-shirts, and tips on improving your game.

And, yes, there is a documentary on the subject called Rock Paper Scissors; a geek tragedy.

Though there are variations of the game, the basic rules are the same;
—Paper covers rock
—Rock smashes Scissors
—Scissors cut paper

You gotta love the simplicity. For the sake of this post on screenwriting, let’s explore three popular ways that accomplished writers say they have used as starting points for writing screenplays;


But we’re not really pitting them against each other, just showing three examples of writers who use one as their starting point.


“I always start with story rather than characters. When I write I try to write from the point of view of defining a character through action. That way having the narrative shifts define what we think of the characters. That’s why I love film noir crime fiction because double-crosses, twists and turns… you’re constantly readdressing your opinion of the characters and you’re reassessing who you think those people are. I find that a really interesting and very strong form of characterization, but it means putting story first and then just seeing where that leads the characters.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Nolan
(And writer/director of the #3 all-time (domestic) box office film The Dark Knight)


“I DETEST the word plot. I never, never think of plot. I think only and solely of character. Give me the characters; I’ll tell you a story–maybe a thousand stories. The interaction between and among human beings is the only story worth telling.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant
In the Heat of the Night


“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.”
Three time Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky
Network, The Hospital, Marty

Three different writers with three different starting points, but each with successful results. The important thing isn’t to argue or worry over your starting point, but pick which works best for you and start (and, yes, there are other starting points). But just as important, finish what you start. And if you really want to have a hand up on most screenplays write one with a solid story, solid characters, and a solid theme.

Scott W. Smith

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith

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“People who succeed in the arts most often are the people who get up again after getting knocked down. Persistence is critical.”
Scott Turow

“I used to write on the morning commuter train. It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.”
Scott Turow

It took Scott Turow a “six to seven year period” to write his first published novel Presumed Innocent. But if that alone doesn’t show his persistence, he had written four unpublished novels before that. Though he was a practicing lawyer and had published a memoir (One L), his childhood dream of being a novelist wasn’t faring so well. In an interview with Jason Boog, Turow said, “My life as a writer was carried on against the odds… as a writer of fiction I hadn’t gotten very far.”

Presumed Innocent
was published in 1987 and he has now had eight fiction books published (along with two non-fiction books) and has sold more than 25 million books.

“There have always been books about trials going back to the trial of Socrates, or the Merchant of Venice, or Billy Budd. But Presumed Innocent depended upon a change in public attitude: lawyers were no longer idealized figures.

The overwhelmingly successful trial book of my early adolescence had been To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is so perfect it’s beyond belief. He’s a widower caring in a loving fashion for two wonderful children. He is a man of courage, principle, deep intellect – and the best shot in the county!

Presumed Innocent challenged that view of lawyers. I wrote it saying to myself: ‘To hell with Perry Mason, I’m gonna show it as it is.’ It turned out people were intensely curious about what actually goes on in courtrooms, and that Americans were deeply interested in law.”
Scott Turow
Interview with Robert McCrum

It would be interesting to compare courtroom dramas before the movies The Verdict (1982) and Presumed Innocent (1990) with courtroom films and TV programs of the last 20 years.

Scott W. Smith

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“The ‘if-I-had-time’ lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born—without the luxury of time. Lawyer Scott Turow wrote his riveting novel Presumed Innocent* on his daily commuter train.”
Julia Cameron
The Right to Write
page 14

*The 1990 movie Presumed Innocent starring Harrison Ford was based on Turow’s international best-selling book with the screenplay being written by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula. According to Box Office Mojo it made $221,303,188. worldwide. It’s probably worth mentioning that before Turow got on that commuter train he had graduated from not only Harvard Law School but had a Master’s in Creative Writing from Stanford University. He has written a total of eight books, has a website,  and is currently a partner at Sonnernschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago.

Update: Just read where Turow studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Wallace Stegner, the founder of the writing program at Stanford. Because I can’t seem to escape this theme, Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and educated (master’s degree, doctorate) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. More on Turow & Stegner in coming days.

Related posts: The Breakfast Club for Writers
Filmmaking Quote of the Day #4 (Will Smith)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip#2)
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith


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“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film — The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film — The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

Related Posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)

Scott W. Smith

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