ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

1000 Jump Shots From The Corner

This past Monday night at our script group, my friend Deb put on a full reading of her screenplay. Because the main characters are 14-year-old girls, she went outside the actors in our group, and cast two 15-year-old girls, professional actresses, to play the leads.

The girls were great, and impressively they really worked hard at it. Though it was a staged reading, there was a lot of movement by the actors, and they obviously learned a lot of their lines. These two girls put a lot of time and effort into reading these parts --

Time and effort that has no tangible payoff. Because if this script is made into a movie, they likely won't get the roles. They weren't paid, and they probably didn't meet anyone who is going to further their careers, both of which are going pretty well anyway; one has a fairly-major role in a movie coming out this spring.

So why did they do it? And why do all these other actors pop by the group every Monday night, to read these pages by us lowly scribes?

Because they are actors, and because they like doing it. Because it's a good training tool; every time they read something, cold read a character, practice an accent, play off another actor, it's going to make them just a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable, the next time they have to audition for something.

And maybe it's just fun to exercise the muscles of the thing they have chosen as their lives.

No one thinks it is odd when an aspiring basketball player plays a pick-up game at the local park. No one feels it is strange when a young basketball player shows up at the gym in the morning to take 1000 jump shots from the corner. It's expected. It's what you do.

For actors, it's the same way.

For writers? Ah...

The odd thing about screenwriting is that the screenplay form is a weird beast. It's not really meant to be read by a wide audience; it's just a stepping stone to something else.

Still, it's something solid. Something one can hold in their hands. And that might be the problem.

For actors and basketball players, learning their crafts is a matter of just going out and putting in the work, with insubstantial rewards. Sure, actors can accumulate lines on a resume, but most of the work they do has been forgotten in ten years. Basketball players play a lot of ball, they take millions of shots in their lives, but individual scores of games don't matter as much as the fun of playing, while the immense practice time they put in is only reflected in their improved skillsets.

But writers always have the fruits of their "practice". The best way to become a writer is to learn to write, to write every day, but the catch is that this writing actually produces something, pages that pile up on one's desk.

And I think that's the trap that too many aspiring writers fall into. It's just way too easy to forget about the learning curve, when the learning curve is producing something that "could" be sellable.

So suddenly the learning curve becomes the writing-something-to-sell curve. For way too many writers that I have dealt with, the motivation is not "what can I do to make myself a better writer", it's "how can I sell this first script right now". And they don't want to listen when you tell them that they shouldn't even bother, until they have written 5 scripts, or 10. Really learned what it takes to be a writer.

As someone once told me, when you can't remember how many scripts you have actually written, then maybe you are on the right path.

Still, it's rare as writers, outside of writing class, that we actually write something as pure exercise, as writing-for-writing's sake, to explore something in particular, to hone one aspect of one's writing, or even to have fun. It's rare that we do what these actors do, just show up somewhere one night a week and practice our craft for the hell of it, and not because it's going to produce something tangible.

One reason is probably because writing is by its nature a solitary, internal profession. But another is because, I believe, most of us have trained ourselves to focus all of our writing energy on actually producing something that might just sell, rather than on exercising other writing muscles.

I've actually been lucky along the way, because I have been paid at random times to do some odd, educational writing work. For Miramax (apparently because Harvey's brain freezes if he has to read anything not in screenplay form), I once had to type up the play version of "Chicago" into screenplay form. It's an experience retyping something a good writer has written, you really get a feel for how something that someone else has written flows over a screenplay page.

How many people would do that if they weren't getting paid for it?

For another company, I regularly had to do scene breakdowns. Literally, it was a chart that listed every single scene in a screenplay, where it took place, and what happened in the scene. Again, it's another interesting way of learning how to break down scripts, and see how they build and flow. Not a whole lot of actual writing, but again, something that helped me in some way as a writer.

Again, not something that most writers would even consider doing if there wasn't a paycheck at the end of it. And it's sad, really. I'm not saying that I'm not just as guilty as everyone else; I am. Too much of my screenwriting education has been an accidental side-effect of my day job.

But screenwriting is hard to do well, and Hollywood is littered with the scripts that come out of people who really haven't come close to mastering it, the people who think that the end-result of their playing with the screenplay form for the first time is somehow worthy of actually being made into a movie. That occasionally one hears of someone selling the first thing they ever wrote only feeds this idea.

Personally, I think there should be a law. Writers should be required to write five scripts, while also doing other things to learn their craft. Writers should treat it like they are learning to be doctors; you have to learn the nuts and bolts before you are ready to actually step up and be a pro. Writers should treat this learning process as a time when it doesn't matter what you write, because you aren't allowed to submit it anywhere.

Five scripts. And only then can you start inflicting your scripts on agents, managers, producers.

I know, I know. Crazy. And obviously it's unenforcable, and I know, your third script was great. And your second. And your first.

Sigh.

Take the metaphorical 1000 jump shots from the corner every day for five years. Learn your craft. There are no real shortcuts.

24 Comments:

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

Great post! I wrote at least 8 or 9 scripts before I felt like I knew what I was doing. Now, after several years of daily writing, I have three scripts worthy of showing. Two more are on the way. In that time I also wrote a novel, with no expectation to sell, and several short stories. I think keeping up a blog, like yours, counts for writing on the side.

 
At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once upon a time I would write for the practice. 7-10 pages. A scene. A random short.

I've let it slip by the wayside in favor of writing the flavor of the month for the guys I'm trying to produce with. Frustrating, but great practice to work on these "maybe we should" projects.

Moral of the story is clear though. When I get frustrated that some shiite is in the theatre and I'm not repped, I remember that Michael Jordan got cut from his High School basketball team. He wasn't ready, and neither am I. But boy do I feel like I'm getting close.

ted

 
At 1:01 PM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Focused steady, daily practise -- yes, absolutely.

If I could add:
... not just volume, but range of situations, to meet a variety of story needs.

But great post, Scott.

 
At 1:06 PM, Blogger Dave Olden said...

Although ... works should be submitted when they're ready, not when they've reached a ceratin quota.

 
At 2:47 PM, Blogger shecanfilmit said...

I started doing things like typing out pages of scripts I admire and timing films and writing breakdowns (not for money!) during my sabbatical from high tech last fall. Really useful stuff. And then I finished script #8. I do agree with you. I shudder at the knowledge that I even put scripts #6, #7 and #8 out there. But at some point, you gotta test the waters.

Maybe by #10 I'll be warmed up. Just in time for menopause. Sigh.

 
At 5:52 PM, Blogger annabel said...

"Unfortunately many young writers are more concerned with fame than with their own work... It’s much more important to write than to be written about." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 
At 8:12 PM, Blogger Leif said...

Isn't reading blogs about writing a shortcut?!

Seriously, I agree with what you're saying but have a hard time putting it into actually practice. It's hard to get motivated to write a script that is going to end up not good. And not even just not sellable, but just so bad you can't even get your friends to fake liking it.

It seems such a waste of some potentially good story ideas, that I think would make good movies, or at least something to be proud of having written, yet won't reach that potential with my current level of writing skills.

I did have the idea of writing my own adaptations of books that I enjoyed, but when I broached that subject to the pro writers forum over at the artful writers site, the reaction was almost universally against the idea as a learning tool.

 
At 8:33 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

"So why did they do it? "

I'm glad you asked, Scott. The actress that played Louanne originally tried out for Jenny. She wanted to do it for the possiblity of getting a shot to be in the movie but she really did it because she loved the material. Girls in that age range are rarely offered the chance at meaty rolls. It's mostly Nickelodeon and Disney fare.

After another actress had to drop out, she helped us get the other girl. I sent her the script and she loved it too. They didn't memorize their lines but they definitely went beyond the call of duty in their preparation. And when it came time to perform it on stage they really put it all out there.

So, there's another writer's lesson. Write roles that actors want to play and they will come. In droves.

I just got permission to talk about one of the girls and am going to ask the other so I can relate the whole story on my My First Kiss blog. And give them the props they're due.

 
At 8:36 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I thought my very 1st script was ready the second I finished the first draft. I was wrong.

 
At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting take. May I ask... how many scripts do you have, Scott?

 
At 10:42 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I don't remember ;-) Well into double-digits, though.

 
At 12:46 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Great post. Working on my 12th and still learning.

Mark

 
At 6:05 AM, Blogger Lab Lemming said...

"Still, it's rare as writers, outside of writing class, that we actually write something as pure exercise, as writing-for-writing's sake, to explore something in particular, to hone one aspect of one's writing, or even to have fun."

Isn't that what blogs are for?

 
At 7:34 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I guess there are some writing muscles being exercised in blogging. Little ones.

But I always thought the idea that Leif mentions above was a good one. Why not adapt your favorite book, even if it has zero chance of ever getting made?

If anything, it seems like it might be freeing to write something that has no hope of selling. And because you love the material, you'll spark to it.

Just writing in screenplay form is educational, and if you are hoping for a screenwriting career, you may be hired to adapt something someday. Might as well get used to the specific demands of adaptation now.

The big argument you'll probably hear is lack of time -- it's a big time investment to write a script, and a lot of people can't wrap their heads around writing a script that has no chance of ever being made.

Which goes directly to my point. There's supposed to be an educational arc here, that we're all going through, and yeah, we're all trying to make this arc as short and efficient as possible, but still -- learning a craft is learning a craft.

 
At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's different for everybody, Scott. It may take somebody 10 scripts to get decent and it may take somebody 2. Maybe even 1.

Personally I think it's bullshit when people say "the script is not an end product" etc. That's such a fucking copout and feeds the whole timid writer stereotype. A well-written script won't ever read like a well-written book, but it doesn't have to be a lifeless piece of work just because it's in script form.

Why not adapt your favorite book even though it will never be made? Because it's a waste of time. It's possible to learn AND be productive.

The thing that drives a lot of writers is hope. We know what we're up against, but there's the hope that we'll get through it. There's no hope in working on something you know will never get made.

 
At 10:48 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I don't buy that at all.

Athletes engage in activities all the time that don't count in the stats. Actors play parts that don't pay, or don't lead to anything. Most professions involve years and years of study without expectation of immediate payoff.

Are you going to tell a law student not to get involved in moot court, because it isn't a real trial?

I never saud that a script should be a lifeless piece of work. I think you should always try and write the most amazing thing you can. Hell, I think people might even write more amazing things if they weren't obsessed with what is commercial, and what they can sell. Just learn to write, by writing things that interest you, by learning the craft, and getting better, and better, and better, and better.

Then start sweating the commercial side of it all.

As for "getting decent", is that what people really aspire to? Being a "decent" writer?

Write five or ten scripts, and try to be a "great" writer.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

people have the same expectations on musicians. i did go through a period where i hated playing in front of people. i told myself i was keeping my chops "pure" for the studio. my playing suffered. now i hit a few places at least once a week just to make sure that i can still reach people with my playing. sounds like this group is a good thing.

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I see the reason and logic behind it. It makes sense. It just won't work.

I think you need to strive. You need to believe that this is the work, the one they will hit the screen. My first scripts stink. My first ideas I still think are pretty damn good. If the scripts aren't good now, I believe they can be retooled at a later date.

If you told a high school kid they they could try out for the NBA every year, wouldn't they all do it, if only to see if they could. Maybe they are that phenom that emerges above the fold.

It's the stuff of dreams.

I think the trap most writers fall into is trying to market themselves and their scripts too soon. they are worried about what the market wants. Write what you want. Maybe you make a contact or two, but don't put the cart before the horse. Write. Dream. Then write some more.

 
At 2:27 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

The thing with playing basketball or studying medicine is that they have built-in success levels along the way.

You strive to make high school varsity, you have something to push for, and you make it. Your goal is then to start for your college team, and you can aim for that too. All pre-pro.

Medicine? You get an A in this course, an A in that course, pass this or that exam. In both cases, tangible signs of your improvement.

Screenwriting doesn't really have those built-in markers, except in our own heads. But I think this is what people need to develop. Because like these other careers, it isn't about trying to rush into being a pro, it's realizing that you need to hit all these other levels first, and then figuring how to get there in a fashion that is going to be both educational and fascinating.

No one ever said it was easy. It isn't. Probably why there is a limited supply of great writers.

Of course, what's all different is that they have rules to stop people from playing NBA basketball or practicing medicine until they reach a specific level.

 
At 7:00 PM, Blogger Brett said...

I'm always surprised when I meet other aspiring screenwriters who confess that they have done and now do very little writing aside from screenplays. Screenwriting *IS* a very weird beast, a specialized subset of techniques and tricks and methods and fashions.

But it's stilll writing, and if you don;t get your "writing cardio" in, you're just not going to have the wild variety of skills needed.

Ever written in iambic pentameter? There's a reason Shakesperean soliloquies have stood the test of time, and setting yourself to try your hand at that will open your eyes to some amazing little insights about your writing and the way it can be improved.

Ever written in classical sonnet form? Again, you start to learn to think about word choices and meter and rhythm in a very different way.

Try writing an action scene in pure dialog form.

Try writing a tender love scene in purely descriptive action form.

Write a scene with the most hateful despicable bastard you can imagine, then flip it and rewrite that same exact scene so that now the bastard is heroic and embraceable.

Write a treatment for your favorite movie entirely from memory.

Pick some author and try to write in a way that clearly mimics his style.

Take your favorite movie into and write it as a one paragraph newspaper style story.

Just as in basketball you are taught to become so handy with the ball that you forget you even have it, in writing you have to become so comfortable with your "instrument" that you no longer are playing-- you are just BEING.

Write more gooder, I say.
.
.
.
jack of all, master of none B

 
At 9:10 PM, Blogger Systemaddict said...

I have two things that I do-

I write what one would call a novel, though I have no aspiration to ever actually try to publish it. I simply do it to get away from screenwriting and work on all the things that bog my scripts down. Grammar, spelling, etc etc... (I believe you've mentioned that)

And I write a comic-book. One that I actually see some reward from...because someone does artwork from it. But, I also don't think that'll ever be a lucrative venture.

But both have good lessons in them for me, both tell stories and both just keep me writing. At my age, I think the most important thing is to just keep practicing.

 
At 10:43 PM, Blogger Ryan said...

I wrote my first several scripts with no intention of ever trying to sell them. It was only after my 6th one that I heard about a producer looking for scripts that happened to match what I had written that I even tried. And the idiot said he liked it and we made a deal (a deal he later backed out of, but it was still nice at the time).

The thing is, though, that a lot of people take six months or so to write a script. And a lot of us only work on one script at a time. To put that kind of effort and time into something, it generally needs to be more than just an exercise.

 
At 5:02 PM, Blogger Abe Vionas said...

I really liked Brett's comment because in it he outlined some examples of useful exercises. See, I agree with Scott's post: writing requires practice as much as anything else, and we--as writers--should practice our craft.

What Scott, I think, failed to address is how we can practice our craft. It's overly general to say that we should be writing. We all know that--I hope. To say that we should all be working on our screenplays is like saying that a basketball player should constantly be playing in a tournament (rough analogy).

As we all know, though, basketball players spend MOST of their time doing drills. That's the bedrock of their skills. Then, in addition to drills, they play pick-up games whenever possible. Then, if possible, they participate in tournaments. The tournaments are the pinnacle of pyramid of effort.

The problem, too, is that the analogy isn't entirely applicable. But it's close enough.

My point is that I believe that we'd be more motivated as writers, less intimidated by the blank page or daily writing goals if we were to do more drilling.

Writing almost anything is a good exercise, but not nearly as good exercise as writing relevantly. For instance, writing an email (even if you do strive to use proper punctuation, grammar, and make it exciting) is probably less helpful in developing your skills than writing poetry, or a play, or a scene, or a short, focused story.

Our drills, I think, should be directly relevant to our craft. Ask someone to write poetry who doesn't care about poetry, and they'll procrastinate until the end of time. Give a screenwriter an exercise to write a love scene entirely using dialogue and that's something that they'll find fascinating and readily do.

So, having granted that Scott has a point, I'm curious: does anyone know of any books of screenwriting exercises? Would anyone else list screenwriting exercises they've found helpful, invigorating, etc.?

I know I'd appreciate it!

The problem I think that most budding screenwriters have is partly figuring out their process, and partly conveying a story effectively through the medium. I think it's the process part that drilling would help with. And, once you know your process, I believe (I hope) that the writing will become easier--since it's one less obstacle, or internal wall which blocks the telling of a tale.

Here's an exercise or two I've been thinking about:

1)Think of an idea as quickly as you can. Don't analyze it for marketability, already-been-done-ness, or any other factor. EXERCISE: Break it down into three act structure. Beginning, middle, end.

2)Focusing just on the three from above, give yourself 5 minutes to think of three additional possible beginnings, middles, and ends which would make sense.

3)Go stand in front of your DVD shelf. Pick a title. As yourself, what was the point of that movie, why do I think so, how purely did they adhere to the point. (You'll find some films are actually an incoherent mishmash of points/ideas, whereas the best--it seems to me--all hang pretty tangibly to their point.)

Any other ideas?

 
At 10:43 AM, Blogger ruzzel01 said...

Very exciting to watch this.

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