Posts Tagged ‘Linda Seger’

“Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear

“Principle  1: Whenever writers sit down before blank paper or glowing green (or amber) phosphor, their personal story is all they can write.”
Richard Walter
The Whole Picture

In Richard Walter’s book The Whole Picture he has a section called “Identity: The Only Choice” where he makes this profound statement:

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul—call it identity—as we struggle to figure out just what and who it is we genuinely are. The reason we go to the movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.  It’s the same reason we go to church, temple, mosque, ashram or meetinghouse: we seek to answers to the wonderful and dreadful puzzle of our existence.”

Look at the movies that you and your friends watch over and over again and ask how much identity plays a part of liking the movie. Beloved movies that I find fit this category well are The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Pretty Women, Erin Brockovich, Braveheart, Rocky, Titanic, Dead Poets Society, The Matrix,  An Officer and a Gentleman. On the Waterfront, Good Will Hunting, Thema and Louise, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles (Pixar, Pixar, Pixar) and, of course, Field of Dreams. (Just to name a few.)

“If we look at some of the Academy Award winners of the 80s and 90s, we can see an identity theme shimmering through many philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.
Linda Seger
Advanced Screenwriting

And certainly the most recent Academy winning best film, The King’s Speech, is heavy on identity. On one level you could identify if you were a stutter, but other levels of identity for audiences are if you have any physical trait that is holding you back from performing your best in life. Some could identify being the parent of a child with a handicap. Others could identify with being a gifted teacher whose teaching may be effective, but rather unorthodox and not respected by those in power.

There is no doubt that the screenwriter of The King’s Speech identified first hand with the material he was writing. And as we learn from now Oscar-winner David Sielder, sometimes writers aren’t always aware at first the themes which they evoke.

“I wanted to write something about my hero George VI who had given me hope as a kid, because my parents had said, ‘listen to him, he stuttered far worse than you and yet he can give these stirring, magnificent wartime speeches that rally the world.’ I didn’t see it, the fact that I was actually writing about myself. Now, with a bit more maturity, now I can see it very clearly that I was writing my story through the King.”
David Sielder
BBC interview

Sieldler wrote an emotional autobiography.  So when in The King’s Speech when King George VI says, “I have a right to be heard. I have a voice,” you know this is the former stutter Sielder’s speaking as well. And how many in the audience connect with that emotionally as well?

Richard Walter’s adds, “More than a quarter of a century of professional writing and decades spent teaching have convinced me that writers’ own personal stories are all they should write.” Walter’s former student and graduate in the MFA program at UCLA, Alexander Payne, did okay writing an emotional autobiography called Sideways for which he won an Oscar (with Jim Taylor) in 2005.

I like the phrase “Emotional Autobiography” because it describes what writers do when they tap into identity themes.

“Emotional autobiography is what is going to bring your story to life, and what will make your reader connect with your characters. I bring this idea back to Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried. I’ve never been a soldier, but I intrinsically identify with all of the emotions those characters are feeling. The author’s emotional autobiography replaces factual accuracy and becomes my own emotional history. And that is what we should all strive for when we take the seeds of our own experiences and transfer the spirit of what is meaningful from our lives to the page.”
Eric Wasserman
Writer and Assistant Professor at The University of Akron
Embracing Emotional Autobiography Over Factual Representation in Fiction

Note: In the next few days I will begin a series of posts based on an interview I did recently with Richard Walter who was the first one to introduce me to the whole concept of identity in relation to movies and screenwriting. Walter is Professor and Screenwriting Chair at UCLA and the author of Essentials of Screenwriting.

Related post: Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)

Can You Identify?

Scott W. Smith

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“I was a novelist during the late ’80s and early ’90s, two of which sold to Hollywood. The first one was Max Lakeman and the Beautiful Stranger, which sold to Wendy Finderman who produced Forrest Gump. The second was called The Man in the Window, and Scott Rudin had that for a while. So a light went on in my head after the second one that I must be writing stuff that follows some sort of Hollywood template. I moved away from writing books and bought one, How to Make a Good Script Great by Linda Seger—which is a great book. My novel writing background gave me an in to the industry, so I sat down and started writing screenplays. The first one I wrote sold for a little bit of money in 1993. Once I figured out the medium and got better at it, I was able to sell another one. I always had a sense that I was a screenwriter in waiting, rather that a novelist who would become a screenwriter.”
Screenwriter Jon Cohen (Minority Report)
Christopher Wehner Interview in Creative Screenwriting May/June 2002

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“Subtext is what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines. Often characters don’t understand themselves. They’re often not direct and don’t say what they mean. We might say that subtext is all about underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader.”
Linda Seger
Creating Unforgettable Characters
page 148

“If two characters say  ‘I love you’ and mean it, the scene is over. In other words, a story must have a subtext. Subtext is what lies beneath the text. It can be the underlying meaning of a story, the subconscious motives of a character, or what is really going on moment by moment in the scene.”
Linda Stuart
Getting Your Script Through the Hollywood Maze
Page 90

By adding the prefix sub (under, below) to a word changes the meaning of the root word.  A submarine is able to go under the water—sometimes deep under water. Writing good subtext in a screenplay is writing dialogue and scenes that are beneath the surface. Sometimes deep below the surface. Sometimes it takes multiple viewings of a film for you to catch the subtext.

I first heard the term subtext in an acting class years ago. Actors love to play the subtext of a scene. You can give an actor a line like, “I’m going to miss you,” and they can play it ten different ways.

A very simple example of subtext is in the movie Juno when Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are contemplating what color they’re going to paint their nursery for the baby they are adopting. At the end of the page and a half scene Mark says, “I think it’s too early to paint. That’s what I think.” On the surface he seems to me saying, “Let’s wait until we know if it’s a boy or a girl and then decide on the color.”

But it’s really two short sentences packed with subtext. And as you read the Diablo Cody script. or watch the movie, the story unfolds a little more and you know exactly what was really going through Mark’s mind.

Sometimes, like in that case from Juno, the subtext isn’t recognized until later in the film. And sometimes the subtext is instantly recognized by the audience like the 70s guilty pleasure Smokey and the Bandit when Burt Reynolds says, “I only take my hat off for one thing….”

One of my favorite scene of subtext is in Cast Away, written by William Broyles, Jr. (Technically it’s two or three scenes, but one just spills over from the house to the garage to the jeep.) It’s toward the end of the movie when Tom Hanks has returned after years of being stranded on an island and is going to meet his old love (Helen Hunt).  Like most people she believed he was killed in the plane crash and is now married with children.

It’s a tender scene that in the script goes on for six pages as they talk about everything but their relationship; The weather, her kids, the Tennessee Titans almost winning the Super Bowl, where the search parties looked for him—everything but their relationship. Finally Hank’s says, “I should have never got on that plane.” That revelation is too powerful for Hunt to deal with so she changes the subject to take him to the garage where she still has his old jeep.

He says, “You kept the car? She says, “I kept everything.” The scene plays on and no one is talking about the elephant in the room; they still love each other. At one point they pause and look into each other’s eyes and it’s subtext without any text. Finally, Hunt says “Right back. You said you’d be right back.” They open up and proclaim their love for each other which is all the more agonizing because she has another family she is committed to. Great writing full of conflict, and full of subtext.

Scott W. Smith

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Earlier this year I wrote a post called Writing from Theme (tip #20) and I just came across a couple more related quotes on the matter so I thought I pass them along.

“To produce a mighty work, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Herman Melville

“Great writers communicate theme through action and images, with good dialogue used sparingly. They prove their theme by showing it, not talking about it. Themes in screenwriting can be tricky because in real-life we love to talk about our themes—share our philosophies of life, tell people our beliefs about life’s meaning. But themes we talk about are not our life’s real themes. Our true themes are lived out by our actions. ”
Linda Seger
Making a Good Writer Great
page 71-72

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In her book Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger talks about “the ever-present identity theme.” She explains that some examples would be be finding one’s identity (Dead Poets Society), holding on to one’s identity despite oppression (Erin Brockovich), and finding one’s identity within a sport (Rocky).  

“If we look at some of the Academy Award winners of the 80s and 90s, we can see an identity theme shimmering through many philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.
                  Linda Seger 
                  Advanced Screenwriting,
                  Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level
                  Page 99

Certainly this years Oscar nominations, including The Wrestler and  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has its share of films that deal with the theme of identity. 

Related and much more in-depth look at  the theme of identity: Writing Beyond the Numbers (tip #8)


Scott W. Smith 



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Since the 81st Oscars are this Sunday I thought I’d mention the only screenwriting books I am aware of that come from the perspective of screenplays that are Oscar winners. Dr. Linda Seger is a much respected script consultant and the author of several books on screenwriting including Academy Awards Advanced Screenwriting: Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level and also And the Best Screenplay Goes to: Learning from the Winners—Sideways, Shakespare in Love, Crash. 

“I’ve used Linda’s concepts from Making a Good Script Great on all my films starting with Apollo 13.” 
              Ron Howard 
              Academy Award-winning Director (A Beautiful Mind)

“A bold new approach to screenwriting. Dr. Seger humanizes the process by acknowledging the role that psychology, our personal stories, and our personal spirituality play in our creative work.”  
              Linda Woolverton 
              Screenwriter (The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast) 

Back in the 80s I took a class from Seger that was held to the American Film Institute campus but open to the public. She knew her stuff then and has continued to build her reputation and influence over the years. For a more detailed information about Seger and the services she offers contact her website at www.lindaseger.com.

But the quote from today doesn’t come from one of Seger’s many books but an interview that she did with Emon Hassan for Shooting People.

SP: How much should a writer be aware of in terms of character, structure, theme, and story when a burst of inspiration hits and (s)he is writing the first draft?

LS: The first draft, do the work to figure out where you’re going, but let it flow and don’t evaluate too quickly. Write as it comes to you, while still following somewhat of an outline, but be prepared to let the Muse take you other places. Remember, there is the creative process and the analytical process, and although there are places where they come together, you want to favor the creative process in the early stages. But, if you’ve learned structure, concepts about character and theme, then they will have been digested and still be informing your creative process.


Related post: Screenwriting, Infomercials, and Gurus


Scott W. Smith

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