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Scott W. Smith: One of your lines in your book [Bring the Funny] is “You must teach yourself how to be a screenwriter.”
Screenwriter Greg DePaul (Bride Wars): Definitely. But I do have tools that can save them a lot of time in the learning process.
Scott: You write that the most important key to success as a screenwriter is [drum roll please]…diagramming. What do you mean by that?
Greg: Well, some people would call it deconstructing, or coming up with a beat sheet for an existing movie or what have you. When I was getting an MFA degree in playwriting from Catholic University I took course from a guy named Mark Stein who wrote a movie called HouseSitter with Goldie Hawn. He was also a playwright. He said, “The first thing I’m going to teach you is diagramming.”
Basically it means taking an existing film. (I strongly encourage you to use the script, not to watch the movie.) You can do it by getting on Netflix and hitting pause after every scene. And you deconstruct it by creating a one sentence version for each scene. So you’re going to have 60,70, 80 sentences all in a line. They might take up two pages. Single spaced may be one and a half pages. And then you can break it into three acts. You can just see “Greg shoots Bill.” “Greg escapes the police.” “Greg goes to see Mandy.”
And the trick to diagraming is to put the main actions in capital letters, so SHOOTS, KISSES, ESCAPES are always in caps on the page. I don’t usually put the setting or any details in the scene because it’s not that necessary. I break it into three acts, and this does two things. It helps you remember that movie. Because if you’re writing a horror movie, (which I’ve never done) you should be diagraming every horror screenplay in your genre or subgenre that you can possibly diagram. And you should pile them up in your room if you’re writing horror, so you’ll be very familiar with the turns of a horror film.
So you’ve done your research. Don’t write in ignorance. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. There are certain things that come up in every horror film. You need to know them, even if you’re going to change them, or violate them. So first you’re doing research on your genre, I’ve diagramed almost every romantic comedy you can think of, and secondly you’re also training yourself as a writer to remind yourself not to fall into the biggest pit that all screenwriters fall into which is not enough action. I can’t tell you when I read someone else’s script how many times it doesn’t have enough action, and if there’s not action there’s not conflict, and if there’s not conflict, then there’s no story generally.
There’s derivatives of that. Like I teach a sitcom writing course where I make them diagram a whole bunch of screenplays or TV scripts and they don’t just write Greg KISSES Mandy, I have them use the word DESPITE. It’s a rhetorical trick. Every time you use the word DESPITE then you have to look for the obstacle. Greg KISSES Mandy DESPITE her RUNNING AWAY. Bill STEALS the money DESPITE the guards SHOOTING him. Whatever it is. So now you’re training yourself to identify and use action at the same time, and to identify and use obstacles. Because the next problem that screenplays have is people don’t give their characters enough obstacles. So there’s a lot of tricks like that I used when diagraming that’s really just about understanding the story form that you’re writing in, especially your genre, and also reminding yourself how to write.
Scott: I went to a workshop once with an accomplished writer and he started by saying, “I’m not sure why they wanted me to do this workshop because I’m not sure writing can be taught or that there are any rules.” I raised my hand and said, “What about conflict?” He said conflict was good you should have conflict and it ended up being an enjoyable day of anecdotes. But his approach was more internal, instinctual, and he didn’t really have way of conveying what he did.
Greg: I’m an A- screenwriter, but I think I’m able to help people [learn the writing process] more because I’m not a natural. If someone was a total natural at it they may not have had to externalize their process and articulate it. It might be easy for them. If it’s too easy for them, it might not help you if you’re having he struggles that the other 99% of writers have.
Scott: I call that the Ted Williams-effect where the great baseball player Ted Williams who’s advice to younger ball players was to wait for a good pitch and swing. Some have said his coaching career was short-lived because he became impatient with ordinary athletes’ abilities.
Greg: Right, I think that also works with genre, tone, and style. There are some people who naturally happen to have been into dark comedy, and that’s your natural bent, but now they’re not buying dark comedy. Well, now you’re going to have to work hard to write bright, happy comedies if that’s what the market wants. And you might be able to make that change. It might take you some time to make that pivot. Or if you hit the market in Hollywood with your dark comedy in a year or month when they’re dying for dark comedy then you might break in immediately, but that’s like the luck of the draw. The zeitgeist happened to be looking for you and you had it. For most of us though you’re going to have to have to make a compromise with the zeitgeist.