Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

”Without conflict it’s hard to have drama. One of the famous lines about literature [comes from] the French writer Henry de Montherlant [who] said about happiness, that it’s almost impossible to write about. He said, ’happiness writes in white ink on a white page’—it doesn’t show up. If people are happy, there’s no story.”
—Author Salman RushdieMidnight’s Children )
MasterClass, Determine How to Tell Your Story

And with the Rushdie quote we’re back to one of my favorite topics related to screenwriting—conflict. Something I’ve converted many times on this blog. Here a few links over the years:


Conflict: The International Language of Drama

The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle 

Neil Simon on Conflict 

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

And since Rushdie touched on happiness being hard to write about, it seems a fitting point to mention a Susan Cain TED talk where she mentions that people listen to sad songs at a far higher rate than happy songs.

”Just think of how many musical genres tap into sorrow: There’s Spanish flamenco, and Portuguese fado, and the Irish lament, and American country music, and the blues.”
—Susan Cain

I’ll leave it to psychologist and cultural critics to unpack that thought. Except to say that I’m guessing the reason has to do with some kind of cathartic release. And many great movies are steeped in sorrow. I’ve always been fond of the this quote:
“Airplanes that land safely do not make the news. And nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.
—Richard Walter

Audiences enjoy watching characters struggle with life. But they appreciate a satisfying ending where there’s at least a hint of happiness at the end of the movie. I was reminded of that this weekend when I watched the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. (A film I’ve seen multiple times, and whose music beautifully captures the melancholy aspects of the movie.)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
—Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing

”The act of writing shows movement, activity, life.”
—William Faulkner 

Last week, I came across a 2001 talk Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) gave titled “Telling the Truth.” Bradbury starting writing every day when he was 12, and by the time he died at age 91 he left behind of sea of work. And his inspiration and influence was vast—including his short story The Rocket Man laying the foundation for the Elton John & Bernie Taupin hit song Rocket Man.

In the 54 minute talk below Bradbury includes this simple to grasp—but hard to follow—advice for those who want to be better writers in one year. It basically boils down to just doing two things:

1) Read one short story every day. (Bonus points for adding an essay and a poem.)

2) Write one short story every week.

That’s it. There’s no guarantee you’ll be a rich and famous writer—or even a published one—after 52 weeks. But Bradbury thinks that after reading 365 short stories and writing 52 short stories that you will be a better writer. So if you’ve spent a year or more just trying to finish a novel or a screenplay, try Bradbury’s approach. Bradbury did not go to college—but to paraphrase Tarantino (who did not even finish high school)—he went to books. One could argue that the Achilles heel of academia and writing workshops is the overanalytical approach.

Stephen King in his book On Writing has a hilarious description of how advice from other writers can turn into a non-constructive feeding frenzy. King also has a quote in that book that fits in nicely to this post.

”If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
—Stephen King
On Writing, page 145

If you’re writing a short story every week, you are not really concerned what your professors and peers think. You’re just cranking out stories 2,000—5,000 words at a time. Maybe sneak in some 5-1,500 word flash fiction pieces to give yourself a break. Bradbury believed that beginning and intermediate writers benefited from writing short stories. And he wasn’t concerned with the quality of the writing at the start as much as he was just the practice of writing. And he added, “I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

I don’t know how many bad short stories Bradbury wrote, but I do know it took him years to get the first one published. When the dust settled on his career he wrote screenplays, TV programs, and over 50 books.

P.S. I thankfully have close access to three libraries so I picked up the above books last week. I grabbed a bunch to immerse myself again in short stories, and I’ll write some reflections here from time to time. Neil Gaiman says, “Good stories should change you.” That’s asking a lot. But you probably have a few stories that you’ve read, heard, or saw that did in fact change you in some way. One that I recall was one I read when I was 19 years old. It was Irwin Shaw’s short story The Eighty-Yard Run. It’s why I dedicated my book to Annye Refoe, the professor who assigned that reading in class.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I have no idea where it came from. It just came all of the sudden. One minute it wasn’t there and the next thing the whole line was there.”
—Paul Simon on writing Bridge Over Troubled Water

Twice in the past week I heard two accomplished artists talking about unconsciousness in terms of creativity and I thought I’d string them together for you to ponder. And then I tie them in from a screenwriting perspective from my book where Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasden address the mystical part of writing.

“Your personal experience and your emotional stress finds its way by way of your unconscious mind over into the mind of reality. And it translates itself into your lyrics, and you don’t even know that’s happened.”
—Musician Gordon Lightfoot
The documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

“I’m interested in acting that involves the unconsciouses. We all know how to do something and hit beats and deliver to kill a performance. I’m interested in giving the performance that I don’t know how to deliver. . . . It’s very fluid when you’re in a take. And there’s definitely some structure to the scene because of the dialogue, or how the scene is going to play out. And I rely heavily on the director for that structure, too. But I’m here to bring responses and truth.”
—Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman
WTF Podcast with Marc Maron

Here’s a section pulled from my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles:

Mike De Luca asked Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls, “When did you first feel when you had what it takes to be a screenwriter? Did you have this specific moment when you felt the confidence of,‘I can do this.’?” Uhls resonded, “It was when the analytical side and the intuitive side merged together, worked together as a creative unit.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarantino said of creating the Mia character (Uma Thurman) in Pulp Fiction, “I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea whatsoever. ” That’s intuition. And talent.

The intuitive side of screenwriting is hard to articulate. The intuitive side isn’t as concrete as the analytical side. It could even be called mystical.

When Lawrence Kasden was asked how he came up with Yoda’s unique speech pattern (“Much to learn, you still have.”) when writing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back he did not know.

“I don’t know that we choose how we write. I think it somehow chooses us. It’s very mystical.”
—Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote (Tender Mercies).

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m Albert Brooks, and I’m speaking to you on behalf of the Famous School for Comedians, located on twenty-two gorgeous acres near Arlington National Park. How many times have you gotten nice laughs at a party, had a friend turn to you and say, ‘You know something. [your name here], that was pretty funny. You should think about being a comedian.’ Well, your friend was right!”
—Albert Brooks

When Jerry Seinfeld was interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Podcast he talked about reading an article in Esquire magazine called Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians. That article was originally published in 1971 putting Seinfeld around 16-years-old when he read it. The funny thing is Seinfeld didn’t realize that the article was a spoof. There not only wasn’t a famous school for comedians, there wasn’t one at all.

I found this website that has the entire article online (without a login). The school lists an advisory faculty, a curriculum, and a comedy talent test. (A warning on that test: It’s 1971 humor so if you’re younger than Jerry Seinfeld, you’ll be offended at least once.)

This was well before the internet or even ubiquitous 24-hour cable TV. Back when people sat around and listened to records of comedians, and maybe caught them on the The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. So give Seinfeld a pass for not getting the joke right away.

What’s important is 16-year-old Jerry Seinfeld already had his antenna tuned toward being a comedian. He graduated from Queens College, rose through the ranks performing stand-up in New York City, then doing the same thing in Los Angeles, before his first appearance on Carson just before his 28th birthday.

Seven years later everyone was watching Seinfeld—which they’re still doing long after the show’s nine season run. And partially explains—despite never having attended Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians— why Jerry Seinfeld is worth close to an estimated one billion dollars today.

In 2020, he published the New York Times Bestseller Is This Anything? That (and his documentary Comedian) are as close as you’ll get to a “Jerry Seinfeld’s School for Comedians.” But we’ll take a look at his process this week—one that he says he hasn’t veered from since he started doing stand-up.

P.S. A massive difference between 1971 and 2021 is a 16-year-old comedian today can have his or her own YouTube following. They’re cranking out content and getting immediate feedback. (Albeit some of it is brutal feedback, but that’s how you develop thick skin.) But in some ways YouTube and other social media outlets are vaudeville, comedy clubs, and an opportunity to break open your career with a spot on Carson all rolled into one. With a whole talent pyramid that’s always prevalent.

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld & Marc Maron on the Essential Element of Comedy
What Changed Jerry Seinfeld’s Life
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 1) On getting his first laugh around age eight.
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 2) On the serious aspect of comedy.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Our stories, our books, our films are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays out.”
—Musician Bruce Springsteen

“I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”
—Novelist Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides)

I’ll continue my run of James Bond posts, but thought I’d take a break to show a stack of notes I recently went through. It’s what my posts look like before they hit this blog. Just note after note scribbled here and there when I’m listening to a podcast in the car or on a walk.

About the only thing I can make out from my scrawl is this David Mamet quote, “There is no such thing as character. Character doesn’t exist.” (Somehow notes like these have fueled over 3,000 posts in the past 13 years.)

On top of hundreds of handwritten notes there are thousands of similar notes in my Notes app on my cell phone. Today I heard writer/director Paul Greengrass talking on the radio about his new film News of the World and when asked if his creative process is a common method said, “I don’t know how other filmmakers do it.” So I just voice recorded that sentence into Notes. It was the only direct quote that I captured from the interview.

One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years is to show how a diverse group of people work in different ways to accomplish the same goal. When I last counted I’d quoted over 700 writers, filmmakers, and film industry leaders. I’ve consumed plenty of interviews, books, and podcast featuring writers who explain their process. It’s what works for them, but may not be helpful for you.

For instance, more than one writer has said it’s a mistake to start writing from theme. Yet, would they change their mind if they knew that was exactly how Rod Serling wrote? That may not be how they work, but it worked out okay for the prolific Twilight Zone creator.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
—Rod Serling

Anyway, I’m always on the hunt for a fresh perspective to the creative process. I think all writing is organized chaos, and playwright and screenwriter Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) said something to that effect.

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
—Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Conversations with Arthur Miller, Page 287

“I begin in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.
—Novelist Henry Miller
 Reflections on Writing

There’s no shortage of chaos in the world right now. But as I think back on history—and the history of movies—chaos is having a long run. And the best writers help us make sense of the world we live in. When you organize the right words in the right order (as Tom Stoppard wrote) “you might nudge the world a little.”

Here’s the trailer from News of the World (screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies, from the novel by Paulette Jiles) where Tom Hanks’ character appears to seek to bring order out of chaos.

P.S. I’ve yet to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but now may be a good time. Bill Gates said the 2011 book was “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

P.P.S. The first 30 seconds of this clip is kinda what my wife looks like when she walks into my home office—not that I have A Beautiful Mind.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“There are strong incidents in [Casino Royale] which are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.”
—Ian Fleming

First Edition of Casino Royale (1953)

Last week I picked up a used copy of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond story published in 1953. Casino Royale is only 137 pages, which I’d guess comes in around 50,000 words. He wrote the first draft in two months while on holiday in Jamaica. In my quest to discover why James Bond has had such a long shelf life I came across this article attributed to Fleming (but I have yet to see the original source).

[T]the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.

I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as ‘Thrillers designed to be read as literature,’ the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.

All right then, so we have decided to write for money and to aim at certain standards in our writing. These standards will include an unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in our narrative.

But these qualities will not make a best seller. There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.

If you look back on the best sellers you have read, you will find that they all have this quality. You simply have to turn over the page.
—Ian Fleming
How to Write a Thriller
Originally published in the May 1963 issue of Books and Bookmen
Via the LitHub website, Emily Temple, and Peter Morwood
(If anyone has info on the original 1963 article please send me a link.)

P.S. Did you know that first actor to play the James Bond was not Sean Connery—but an actor born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland? Back in 1954 Barry Nelson was Bond in the live tv version of Casino Royale (as part of the Climax! series). Antony Ellis and Charles Bennett wrote the Tv version that came in at 52 minutes. A comment on IMDB said the Tv rights were optioned for $1,000. That is believable since James Bond was unknown and Casino Royale just hit the bookstores in the United States a few months before the airing of the show. All involved probably thought it would help book sales.

Related posts:

‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #76 (Leslie Dixon) She says her screenwriting book would be a flyer consisting of just seven words.

The four most important words that every storyteller wants to hear to know their story is working (according to Neil Gaiman)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.
—Ian Fleming on picking the name James Bond

In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I point out many instances of where some of the top screenwriters cribbed from others for storylines, characters, and themes. James Bond creator Ian Fleming was no different. Except where Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) says the secret is to steal a little here, and a little there so no one catches you, Fleming at least lifted the name James Bond in broad daylight—from a published writer no less.

James Bond (1900-1989) was an ornithologist from Philadelphia , Pennsylvania who just happened to be an expert on birds in the Caribbean. Fleming wrote his first Bond novel in Jamaica and was familiar with Bond’s writings.

Keep in mind that Fleming was in his 40s and working as a journalist when he began to write his first Bond novel. I’m not sure what his original aspirations were, but I doubted that he thought 68 years ago when Casino Royal was first published that his writings would become one of the most popular and produced characters in film history.

The second real life American inspiration on the fictitious British spy was Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981). Carmichael was a singer, songwriter, and actor who was immensely popular in the 1930s when Fleming began working in naval intelligence at the start of World War II. Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana and actually graduated with a law degree from Indiana University, before his career in music took off.

His song Startdust (or Star Dust) came to him while he was a student at Indiana. With additional lyrics added later by Mitchell Parish, the song became an American standard recorded by many top artists; Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Winton Marsalis, and Frank Sinatra. More recently the song was used in A Star is Born (2018).

In the video below, Carmichael is seated at the piano with another song playing (Georgia on My Mind) that he co-wrote with Stuart Gorell. Does he seem more like or Sean Connery, Roger Moore, or Daniel Craig? This is how Fleming described Bond in his first novel Casino Royale; “Bond reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless.”

Carmichael, Hoagy Carmichael

P.S. Carnichael won an Oscar for his song (with Johnny Mercer ) In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening featured in the 1951 film Here Comes the Groom.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

—Emily Dickinson poem # 1129 (Tell all the Truth but tell it slant)

The Emily Dickinson poem known as Tell all the Truth but tell it slant is one that an English professor could spend a whole class (semester?) discussing. What is meant by tell? What is meant my Truth? What is meant by slant? I watched one video where an undergraduate student likened it to someone telling her that an ugly blouse looked good on her. Soften the blow of the truth. But that is a lie and has nothing with the truth.

I think Dickinson is saying tell all the Truth, but just take the long way home. Otherwise the blinding Truth will be overwhelming. This pandemic that has wrecked havoc on the world and estimated to have caused over 1.6 million deaths (and counting) could have simply been because one person simply bit into a bat. Maybe. And maybe there was nothing China could have been done to stop the spread of the disease. Maybe. And maybe we couldn’t handle the truth.

Shakespeare would often give the “slant” to the fool—the court jester. The one who is actually clever and wise. Tell a joke, do some juggling, and then subversively drop the bomb. When the Fool in King Lear wants to say it’s backwards for the King to be bossed around by his daughter he says, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse.” (Knowing that a fool could be whipped or even executed for speaking the blunt truth, taking the circuitous route—the slant—is the safer way to make your point.)

In the Bible there is the story in 2 Samuel of Nathan telling King David a story about a rich man with many flocks and herds stealing a poor man’s only lamb for a meal. David is angered by what he hears and says, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. And he must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.” Nathan tells David, “You are the man!” Nathan is referring to David not only having an affair with a married woman, but essentially setting up the woman’s husband to be killed in battle so he could marry her. Nathan came at the truth with a slant.

Movie characters all the time (as people do in real life) speak in “slant.” Because to tell the hard truth all the time would cause quite a few relationship problems. On the opposite end of Shakespeare and the Bible, I recall an episode of Gilligan’s Island (“Seer Gilligan” written by Elroy Schwartz) where seeds found on the island allow everyone the ability to know what the others are thinking. If my memory is correct, the mind-reading ability left everyone mad with each other. Not enough slant in their thinking.

Seer Gilligan script

Perhaps Mary Poppins’ said it best; “It’s very clear to see that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” May you all “dazzle gradually” in your writing today.

P.S. Every once in a while I read or hear someone say something to the effect of— all of these screenwriting blogs and podcasts say basically the same thing. Maybe. But I’d asked them to point me to another blog/podcast that mixes these elements together: an Emily Dickinson poem, a global pandemic, Shakespeare, the Bible, Gilligan’s Island and Mary Poppins.

Related post: The Shocking Truth

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Opening line of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

In the second chapter of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I discuss a long list of filmmakers, musicians, screenwriters and artists —Spielberg, Stravinsky, Paul Schrader, Salvador Dali—who echo a version the following concept.

“[M]ost Goosebumps titles are sort of like ’50s horror movies. But I remember these films from my childhood. And then you can borrow the germ of an idea from it. And you can take it and adapt it in your way.”
R.L. Stine
“Other Rich Sources of Ideas”

Movies and Tv shows that Stine remembered watching include The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Creature Walks Among Us, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, and It Came from Beneath the Sea.

The 1958 film The Fly (screenplay by James Clavell from a short story by George Langelaan) involves the head of a man on the body of a fly. The 1995 Stein book Why I’m afraid of Bees (He’s no ordinary human bee-ing) may have nothing more in common than the imagery of a human head on an insect’s body—but that’s a germ of an idea that’s hard to miss. Nothing new under the sun folks.

P.S. Related post: Stealing for Screenwriters

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday’s post was long, so I’ll make up for it today.

“Writing fiction or plays or poetry seems to me to be a very messy business. To be a writer requires an enormous tolerance for frustration, for anxiety, for self-doubt.”

—Writer Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes)

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