Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Three Rs

Reading. Writing. Routine.

It’s extremely difficult to impose any sort of discipline or routine on yourself when you first set out to write. The desire is there but quite often it will be a case of staring at a blank screen or white paper until you get up to make a cup of coffee, then watch some TV, go back to the computer, stare another while - fingers poised - before sod it, time for another cup of coffee and maybe I’ll just watch Empire Strikes Back for some inspiration. Oh look it’s six.

This is what I was like but I don’t do that anymore. The first thing that I realised had to change was that I had to read scripts. It amazes me when I meet fellow screenwriters who say they don’t read scripts because they don’t have the time or that they’re difficult to get through, so they don’t see the point. Well, here’s a good point: when you read other scripts, good or bad, you learn more about the craft of writing a screenplay than you do from a ‘How To’ book and you realise a few home truths about your own writing in the process. That’s just from reading. It should be done on a regular basis. If you’re not a script reader, I would recommend at least two a week. I don’t understand those who won’t read scripts but then expect people to read theirs with the required enthusiasm and appreciation that the writer expects but usually doesn’t achieve.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I felt fairly confident that I could write good screenplays but I needed to know more. I wanted to understand and appreciate everything about the process so that my scripts would stand a better chance in the market. Luckily, I got work as a script reader and for the last six years, I’ve been reading constantly, grabbing everything I can get and absorbing the good and the bad. This script reading work gave me a basic discipline of actually getting work done. Read a script, write a report. Read ten scripts, write ten reports, and so on.

After a couple of years of this routine (literally two years of just reading scripts all day, not recommended for those who rely on office chit chat), I went back to my very first screenplay and realised it was absolute rubbish. So I told a producer what I would do to improve it and he optioned the script from me. The experience was a terrific exercise in serious rewriting and marketing (how to sell even a bad script). Now I was growing in my knowledge, experience and confidence. I was still reading a vast amount of scripts but I altered my routine so that I could fit in more time for my own writing.

And now, six years later after watching TV and wearing pyjamas all day, I have a fairly regular routine of: reading scripts in the morning, writing scripts in the afternoon. Exercise. Take a swim at lunch to get out of the house and avoid writer’s paunch, which is a never ending battle. I call it my millennium dome; it's taken years and lots of money to get there, there's no point to it, it shouldn't be there but there's no getting rid of it now. Also try to drink two litres of water a day and eat reasonably healthy. Because writing is just as much a physical activity as it is a mental one. But distractions always exist and play on your mind. Check emails every 30 seconds. Surf the internet and call it research. And now this blog. However, with a basic routine and discipline in place, even a few distractions can be just the ticket to alleviate any feelings of stress or inadequacy.

It takes focus and determination but when there’s no pay cheques coming in, sitting on your ass and actually doing some work becomes a great incentive.


The Moviequill said...

I know this is putting you on the spot, but do any particular excellent screenplay examples pop up for you? That you could list here and recommend we have a read?

Danny Stack said...

Oo-er. Okay, I'm not going to think about it so here's a few scripts that come to mind that are representative of some of the better scripts available on the internet:-

Avenue A by Rob Pearlstein. Made the last 10 in Project Greenlight's first year. A really well written script in terms of style, content and consistency.

Monster's Ball by Milo Addica & Will Rokos. Solid character-drama, neatly described on the page.

The Sixth Sense by M Night Shymalan. Beautifully crafted and I cry every time I read the scene where he 'communicates' with his mother.

Toy Story by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow. A treat.

Annie Hall by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman. 'Nuff said.

This is a nice variety as they all have different styles and quite often break the "golden rules" of screenwriting but ultimately tell a good story, which is what it's all about.

Scott the Reader said...

How does the Annie Hall script differ from the film? Because there was apparently a *lot* of rearranging, cutting and fiddling in the editing room.

Danny Stack said...

The version I read a few years ago - off the net - was pretty much the film so it must have been one of those 'script book' versions where they transcribe the film into script form...

HolyhosesRob said...

Writers paunch. Heh. I hear ya.

berni said...

any scripts (in your experience) that read well but ended up pure shite?

Danny Stack said...

Nah, not really. What is it they say: "you can make a good film from a bad script but never the reverse." I have though read scripts that were good but didn't translate to much moolah at the box office.